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National security adviser Jake Sullivan told U.S. staffers in Ukraine to get out now

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Earlier today, President Biden spoke with Vladimir Putin on the phone for about an hour. We'll hear more about that call later in the program. The president had asked to speak with Putin after U.S. intelligence officials determined Russia might invade Ukraine within days. On Friday, national security adviser Jake Sullivan said the U.S. did not know if Putin intends to invade but that U.S. civilians in Ukraine ought to leave now.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JAKE SULLIVAN: If a Russian attack on Ukraine proceeds, it is likely to begin with aerial bombing and missile attacks that could obviously kill civilians without regard to their nationality. A subsequent ground invasion would involve the onslaught of a massive force.

SIMON: The U.S. State Department has ordered most employees to leave the embassy in the Ukrainian capital and says it will suspend consular services there beginning on Sunday. NPR's Steve Inskeep has been gaining some insight from a senior U.S. military official. Steve, thanks so much for being with us.

STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: Good morning, Scott. Glad to be here.

SIMON: Why is the U.S. intensifying its warnings now, from what you've been able to glean?

INSKEEP: Well, not because they definitely know what Russia's going to do. This senior military official wasn't authorized to speak publicly, so we're not using their name. But the official added insight and said, quote, "we do not have evidence that Putin has made a decision." Nevertheless, something was detected in recent days that has sharply heightened concern.

SIMON: Do we know what it is?

INSKEEP: The official was not specific but described this as less of a smoking gun like one great piece of intelligence and more as the result of information that's accumulated for months. More and more Russian troops are positioned near Ukraine. I should add a qualifier here. We know from publicly available satellite photos that troops are not right on the border, but they are in staging areas some distance away officially performing military exercises.

SIMON: Let's also add, the Russians haven't offered any kind of political justification or pretext that would justify an invasion.

INSKEEP: No, they haven't. When their troops went into some other countries in recent years, they had some excuse, some kind of violence or unrest or even an invitation from somebody in the country to come in. We haven't seen that with Ukraine. The U.S. has warned of false flag operations that would create that pretext, but that hasn't happened yet, either. Nevertheless, the Russians have piled up tremendous force.

SIMON: Jake Sullivan talked about aerial bombings and missile attacks. What would an invasion look like?

INSKEEP: Well, I felt that Sullivan's words were particularly meaningful because Russia is one of the few nations in the world that could conduct the kind of invasion that, Scott, we associate with the United States. When the U.S. invaded Iraq - and I know you covered that - they ordered sudden airstrikes. They fired missiles. They dominated the skies. They had armored units who could raze the capital. They very quickly decapitated the government. It was very violent. It was very fast.

And Russia has many of those same capabilities. Russia also has precision weapons. Their planes would dominate the skies. It's widely reported they've deployed large numbers of rocket launchers and missiles to Belarus, and they have many, many combat infantry battalions in Belarus where they could very quickly reach the capital.

SIMON: When you look at a map, not a long way from the border to the capital.

INSKEEP: No, and because of the way Ukraine's military is spread out in a very big country, the senior military official says that very, very few Ukrainian troops are currently defending the roads to Kyiv. They would be massively outnumbered. And without doubt, of course, the Russians already know that. We should stress here that when we talk about a big invasion that would target the capital, we talk of what Russia is able to do, not what they will definitely do. There are many other and smaller ways they could attack. They could use cyberattacks and various things, and they've denied plans to attack at all.

SIMON: Of course, talks continue. Let's remind ourselves, what's at stake for the United States in Ukraine?

INSKEEP: Well, for the Biden administration as well as the military, this is a test of the rules-based international order that has endured since 1945. The official says this would be a huge act of international aggression, and it would strike at the idea of national sovereignty and endanger these rules that have been used to avoid a world war for generations, Scott.

SIMON: There are analysts who doubt Russia would ever invade Ukraine because they say, essentially, President Putin is getting everything he wants without an actual invasion.

INSKEEP: Without a doubt. We heard an analyst in Moscow say days ago that he never believed Putin intended to invade. And he has forced the West to think about Russian concerns. He's getting a stream of foreign visitors, and he's going to be on the phone this weekend, apparently, with President Biden. But the concern by the senior U.S. military official is that Putin may be close to a historic mistake. His troops could invade Ukraine easily, which makes it tempting, although they could have a lot of trouble getting out. But national leaders sometimes disregard warnings. They do what they want. And Vladimir Putin has signaled intense interest in Ukraine for a very long time.

SIMON: Steve Inskeep of NPR's Morning Edition, thanks so much for being with us.

INSKEEP: Glad to do it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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