In a remarkable statement late Friday afternoon, President Joe Biden declared that he is “convinced” Vladimir Putin “has made the decision” to invade Ukraine. “We have reason to believe that,” Biden added. “We have a significant intelligence capability.”
Until that moment, over the past several weeks, Biden has said U.S. intelligence agencies assessed that the Russian president had not yet decided whether or not to attack Ukraine militarily. Biden’s statement on Friday marked a major shift. Presidents and intelligence agencies don’t make such statements so definitively unless they are very confident in their judgments.
Nearly as dramatic, Biden also said that the attack, expected to take place “in the coming days,” will “target Kyiv,” Ukraine’s capital, with a population of 2.8 million people.
This too marked a shift. In recent days, Putin seemed to be preparing to attack just the Donbas region of southeastern Ukraine, under the false pretense that its Russian-speaking minorities are under attack and thus need protection. On Tuesday, Russia’s parliament, the Duma, passed a bill authorizing Putin to recognize the region’s two districts—which are dominated by pro-Russia separatists who call the areas the “Donetsk and Luhansk Republic”—as an independent state. On Thursday, Russia filed a report with the United Nations falsely accusing Ukraine of committing “genocide” in the region. On Friday, Gennady Zyuganov, head of Russia’s Communist party and co-sponsor of the parliament’s bill, said that Putin would make a major announcement about Donbas on Feb. 20. The sequence of these events suggested that Putin was getting set to recognize the breakaway republics, then send in troops to occupy the region.
However, if Biden is right that Putin will also attack Kyiv, this would become a much wider war—in fact, the largest war in Europe since World War II.
Putin’s allies in Donbas stepped up their pretexts for war on Friday, claiming that the Ukrainian army is preparing a massive military offensive in the region. Biden ridiculed this claim as “defying basic logic.” It would be absurd, eight years into the civil war in Donbas, for Ukraine to launch a major offensive at this moment, when Russia has mounted 170,000 troops on the Ukrainian border.
However, Biden stressed that war is not inevitable, saying, “Russia can choose diplomacy, it is not too late.” He also noted that Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov are planning to talk someplace in Europe next Thursday. However, Biden added that, if Russia invades Ukraine between now and then, they will have slammed the door shut on diplomacy. The U.S., as well as the nations of the European Union and NATO, would begin imposing the previously threatened package of “severe” economic sanctions.
There is another possibility, though Biden didn’t mention it. It is conceivable that Putin could decide not to invade Ukraine and start withdrawing his troops—as he claims he is doing—precisely to prove Biden wrong and to make all the U.S. warnings of war seem “hysterical,” as Lavrov recently characterized them. If Putin is still looking for a face-saving way out of this crisis, he could use Biden’s confident prediction of war as the vehicle.
Washington and Moscow have engaged in campaigns of “information warfare” in the past weeks. Putin has issued a stream of disinformation; Biden has released highly classified information to reveal Putin’s plans for “false-flag” operations, thus preempting their impact if he put them in motion.
In this context, could it be that Biden’s announcement on Friday was intended as a dare for Putin to prove him wrong—and not invade? We will find out soon.