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13 days: Inside Biden’s last-ditch attempts to stop Putin in Ukraine

A pair of urgent Situation Room meetings and the days that followed provide a revealing window into the Biden administration’s unsuccessful scramble to deter a full-scale Russian invasion

On Thursday in Washington, President Biden finishes his remarks following Russia's invasion of Ukraine. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)
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In the early evening of Thursday, Feb. 10, President Biden’s national security team — a group that included Cabinet secretaries and other senior advisers — got an urgent message: They were needed in the Situation Room for a hastily convened meeting on the escalating crisis between Russia and Ukraine.

There were ultimately two meetings that night — one at 6:15 and another at 8:30 — prompting officials to scrap their existing plans, including a birthday dinner.

The group discussed two new pieces of intelligence: one suggesting that Russia was planning to stage a “false flag” operation pegged to a specific date, blaming the fake attack on Ukraine and using it as justification to invade the country; and the second that the timeline for a Russian invasion had accelerated.

Based on the heightened assessment, the next morning Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned the world that a Russian invasion of Ukraine could occur “at any time” — including during the Olympics — and national security adviser Jake Sullivan appeared in the White House briefing room with a similarly pointed message.

“It could begin any day now,” Sullivan told reporters, adding moments later, “Russia has all the forces it needs to conduct a major military action.”

The 13 days that followed those impromptu Situation Room huddles provide a revealing window into the Biden administration’s unsuccessful scramble to stop Russian President Vladimir Putin from launching a full-scale invasion, as explosions now echo across Ukraine and Russian forces close in on the capital, Kyiv. The attack has plunged the NATO alliance and global markets into crisis, and leaves the United States with limited options as Americans remain broadly opposed to direct military intervention.

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For months, Biden and his team operated on two tracks: one of open diplomacy and one of grim realpolitik — working to counter an unpredictable geopolitical foe who many suspected had already made up his mind to invade Russia’s neighbor to the west.

In November, for instance, the administration stood up an elite “Tiger Team” to game out how the United States would respond to a range of scenarios, from a limited incursion to a colossal, mass-casualty invasion. And in December, following Biden’s sign-off, the national security team deployed a novel strategy of declassifying and sharing intelligence — both with allies and the public — in an attempt to broadcast Putin’s plans as a way of heading them off.

President Biden on Feb. 24 said Russian sanctions were not meant to prevent conflict in Ukraine after his administration previously said the opposite. (Video: JM Rieger/The Washington Post, Photo: Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

The multipronged approach also highlighted a recognition inside the administration that Putin was unlikely to be dissuaded by any countermeasures and that Biden and his team were trying to prevent an invasion that seemed inevitable.

And while Washington successfully united Western nations against Russia, Biden and his team fell short in persuading Chinese leader Xi Jinping to help pressure his regional ally to hold back from attacking Ukraine — but not for a lack of trying.

Beginning in November, U.S. officials started private discussions with Beijing and other countries in a position to influence Russia to alert them to Putin’s plans and explain Washington’s strenuous opposition, said a senior State Department official. But China, already embroiled in disputes with the United States across economic, political and security fronts, was unmoved by U.S. overtures.

“The Russian military has begun a brutal assault on the people of Ukraine, without provocation, without justification, without necessity,” Biden said Thursday in the East Room of the White House, in a speech that was as much an explanation of a fait accompli as an address to the nation. “This is a premeditated attack. Vladimir Putin has been planning this for months as I’ve — we’ve been saying all along.”

This portrait of Biden working to avert Russia’s aggression is the result of interviews with 30 senior Biden advisers, administration officials, diplomats, European officials and former officials still in touch with the White House, many of whom requested anonymity to share candid details of a still-unfolding conflict.

The challenges facing the administration in trying to pressure Putin were evident in a steady stream of statements from Biden and other top administration officials throughout the past two weeks — many of which were contradictory at best.

In his remarks in the briefing room the day after the Feb. 10 Situation Room meetings, Sullivan touted the administration’s threat of crippling economic measures should Russia move forward: “The president believes that sanctions are intended to deter,” he said.

But on Thursday, nearly two weeks later, Biden found himself addressing the world as the Russian attack on Ukraine accelerated, saying publicly what many officials had long been saying privately: “No one expected the sanctions to prevent anything from happening,” Biden said.

‘Not a crazy spy novel’

In early December, the Biden administration unveiled a new, unorthodox strategy in its international game of chicken with Russia: declassifying and sharing intelligence with allies, the media and the broader world.

On Dec. 3, The Washington Post reported that U.S. intelligence had found the Kremlin planning a multi-front offensive as soon as early 2022, involving as many as 175,000 troops. The assessment relied principally on a map that included satellite images, which officials said showed that 50 battlefield tactical groups were deployed, along with “newly arrived” tanks and artillery.

The declassified information was strategically timed, just four days before Biden and Putin were scheduled to have a secure video call to discuss the escalating situation in Ukraine.

“Biden wanted that information out in the world before he spoke with Putin, and he wanted Putin to know that we knew and we were going to make sure the world knew,” a senior administration official said. “It was the start of a new phase where we were talking about what we were seeing. This is a very different way to do diplomacy.”

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This initial declassification was the first in an unusual series of coordinated public disclosures, from December through this month, in which U.S. officials declassified intelligence from sensitive sources to expose Putin’s planning. They used satellite imagery to reveal his massing of troops along the Ukraine border; released details of a scheme to install a puppet regime in Kyiv; and reported that Russia was planning an elaborate false-flag attack — staging a video that would accuse Ukrainian forces of attacking Russian territory or Russian-speaking people in Ukraine, complete with corpses to stand in for victims and a cast of actors posing as mourners.

The approach grew out of intensified intelligence-sharing with allies and partners, including Ukraine, that began in the fall.

But the calculation was a complex one. The U.S. intelligence community historically has been reluctant to share classified information publicly for fear of compromising the sources and methods used to acquire it, including human spies and technology for covertly intercepting communications.

And the officials released the information not so much to deter Putin from invading; U.S. intelligence analysts and their British counterparts already had high levels of confidence that the Russian president ultimately would order his forces across the border.

Rather, they were attempting to shape the public debate and disclose enough information about Putin’s plans so that he could not operate with impunity or attempt to blame Ukraine for a war that he started, according to officials in multiple countries involved in the effort. If he tried to stage a false-flag attack, for example, the world would have been warned that it was a ruse.

Biden ultimately approved the strategy, which was advocated by Sullivan, principal deputy national security adviser Jon Finer and National Security Council spokeswoman Emily Horne.

When analyzing Russia’s recent moves against Ukraine, the United States and its allies have relied mainly on satellite imagery, intercepted communications and social media posts, including by deployed Russian soldiers, who may have carelessly helped to reveal details about their locations and movements.

“We learned collectively from Russia’s disinformation campaigns in the past,” said William Klein, an associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a consulting partner with Finsbury Glover Hering, a global strategic-communications firm. “This time, the United States was very, very proactive in calling out Vladimir Putin before he could act, and the United States was pretty accurate about its forecasts.”

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The decision was born, in part, out of previous Russian aggression, when Putin’s forces invaded and annexed Crimea in 2014. At the time, some U.S. officials were frustrated that the Obama administration didn’t call out Putin using classified information about his plans and operations that the U.S. government possessed.

The information environment has changed since then, as well — with more open-source analysis, commercially available satellite imagery, social media live-streaming of wars and invasions, and a public more likely to understand terms like “disinformation.”

Some national security officials who worked in the Obama administration are now in senior positions with Biden, and they think the savvier strategy is to publicize some of what the intelligence community has collected.

At times, the approach frustrated the Ukrainians. A close aide to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky complained that the Biden administration delivered dire warnings about a Russian attack — including calling it “imminent” — but didn’t share many details, particularly about how the Americans knew what they claimed to know.

The senior administration official said Biden administration officials did share downgraded information with the Ukrainians in real time, but were also aware that the Russians had deeply penetrated the Ukrainian security infrastructure and so were cautious to not reveal sources or methods.

Ultimately, however, the robust information-sharing paid dividends, including helping to unite the United States and its Western allies against Putin.

Biden, a second senior administration official said, wanted to “ensure that everybody had a common picture of the facts, and that was driven by his recognition that to pull together the greatest possible deterrent to stop Russian aggression, he needed all allies and partners on board.”

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Even some European NATO allies who were initially dismissive of the reports that Russia had started to amass troops along its border with Ukraine soon came around, as Biden and his national security team conducted more than 400 calls and meetings with their various counterparts since December.

“Excellent transatlantic consultation and cooperation,” said a senior NATO diplomat who took part in high-level briefings at NATO headquarters in Brussels in December.

Ian Bremmer, president of Eurasia Group, a global risk consultancy, said that while the NATO alliance “was ultimately incapable of preventing the destruction of Ukraine,” the months-long coordination between the countries still proved valuable.

“The alliance is a lot stronger today than it was three months ago, six months, and I think that’s a big problem for Putin going forward,” he said.

And in the final days before Putin made his move, administration officials watched — with a combination of interest and satisfaction — as Russian disinformation was greeted warily by a public that had been primed to be skeptical.

“Seeing people greet these rumors and these streams of disinformation with initial skepticism and then to go to work at debunking them quickly exposed how effectively amateurish a lot of them were,” said the first senior administration official. “For a lot of people who had been wondering if we were crying wolf or if we were being too aggressive in our strategy, it was a wake-up call saying: ‘Oh, no, this is happening. Everything that we have been warning about is not a crazy spy novel. They’re actually going to do that.’ ”

'Like something out of “Argo” '

The days leading up to the Feb. 10 Situation Room meetings had been tense in the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv, as well. By the end of that week, U.S. officials briefed allies that Russia’s military preparations were complete, and the embassy began making plans to evacuate.

The final days were “surreal,” according to one of the last U.S. diplomats to leave. The time was filled with collecting documents for destruction even as the crucial mission of the embassy — talking to Ukrainian leaders and other missions in Kyiv — continued.

“It was like something out of ‘Argo,’ ” the diplomat said, referring to the Ben Affleck thriller about the rescue of six U.S. diplomats amid the 1979 hostage crisis in Tehran.

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Looming large for Biden, too, was the messy withdrawal from Afghanistan last summer. A suicide bombing at a gate of the country’s largest airport had killed 13 U.S. troops, and chaotic images from the final days of the American drawdown had hurt Biden politically, undermining his image as a competent leader.

The evacuation of Kabul was historically unique, and administration officials worried that Americans now would expect a similar U.S. evacuation, although the situation in Ukraine was quite different. Biden several times urged Americans to leave the country while they still could.

“American citizens should leave now,” Biden said in a Feb. 10 interview with NBC News anchor Lester Holt. “It’s not like we’re dealing with a terrorist organization. We’re dealing with one of the largest armies in the world. It’s a very different situation, and things could go crazy quickly.”

A handful of U.S. diplomats, meanwhile, pulled back to Lviv, in the far west of the country. But most lifted off from a chilly Kyiv airfield and evacuated back to Washington on Sunday, Feb. 13.

‘Putin had crossed the Rubicon’

On Presidents’ Day, European Union foreign ministers descended on Paris in advance of previously planned discussions — unrelated to the Russia-Ukraine crisis — scheduled for the following morning. They arrived late, and many were put up for the night in the opulent InterContinental Paris Le Grand, across the street from the Palais Garnier.

This coincidence of timing and location meant that about a half-dozen of them and their entourages were dining separately in the hotel’s 1862 Café de la Paix — or Cafe of Peace — when Putin began delivering a snarling speech about how Ukraine wasn’t a state. The surroundings proved a jarring contrast to the violence of Putin’s address, which a Biden administration official later described as intended to “justify a war.”

Oysters, chestnut-cream-topped foie gras and cardamom-scented pollock were on the menu. Underneath cloud-painted ceilings and gilded chandeliers, one of the diplomats watched as foreign ministers and their aides — sprinkled across the restaurant — pulled out their phones and cued up a live stream of Putin’s speech.

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The diplomats watched the Russian president and swiped through live reactions on Twitter, shifting on their green velvet banquettes as Putin grew angrier and angrier.

“The more Putin spoke, the more shock my colleagues had,” the senior diplomat said of the other ministers and aides. “It was visible. … Even the best friends of Russia in Europe were quite taken aback.”

By the end of the day Monday, Putin had recognized the independence of two Moscow-backed separatist regions in eastern Ukraine and ordered Russian forces onto their territory for alleged “peacekeeping” purposes — his most provocative moves to date.

Now, Biden faced a key challenge: unifying Europe behind a tough sanctions policy, which his administration had long been promising.

For months, Blinken had been shuttling back and forth to Europe to coordinate with U.S. allies on a variety of doomsday scenarios. His problem was that Europeans might splinter apart if Putin mounted an attack that fell short of a full-scale invasion — a reality Biden candidly acknowledged last month, when he admitted that a “minor incursion” might not prompt the full buffet of a response from the West.

That feared moment of ambiguity came Monday as Putin ordered troops into Donetsk and Luhansk — separatist areas Russian forces had already occupied for eight years, albeit without official Kremlin acknowledgment.

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From the Oval Office, Biden — who had already announced limited sanctions narrowly focused on the separatist regions — convened a three-way phone call Tuesday with French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz to devise a response.

Macron, according to officials familiar with the call, noted that Putin’s recognition of the two territories had just eviscerated the Minsk Agreement, a diplomatic accord designed to resolve the conflict in Eastern Ukraine and keep Donetsk and Luhansk within the country’s borders.

Yet what surprised both U.S. and French officials was the reaction from Scholz, who had long hoped to preserve a controversial $11 billion Russian gas pipeline to Germany known as Nord Stream 2. U.S. and German officials kept in close touch through the night, and the next day, Scholz announced that he was halting certification of the pipeline — a major pivot for Germany, which had cultivated a reputation for accommodating Russia.

“Scholz realized Putin had crossed the Rubicon,” said a French official. “The French and the Americans did not even have to strong-arm him on that.”

That same day, the Biden administration began referring to the crisis as “an invasion,” and the American president, speaking from the East Room, outlined additional sanctions against Russia, including against two big banks and several individual oligarchs and their families.

And while the halting of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline made for a powerful opening salvo, Putin’s decision Wednesday to move tanks, troops and warplanes beyond Ukraine’s separatist regions placed new pressure on Biden and his team to respond even more forcefully.

The multipronged attack did not surprise the administration, after months of Russia encircling Ukraine by land and sea. A senior U.S. defense official described Russia’s actions as a likely “initial phase” of a campaign that could unfold for some time.

As missile strikes boomed across Ukraine, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin stayed at the Pentagon into the night Wednesday, “monitoring all of this in real time,” the senior defense official said.

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The defense secretary returned to the Pentagon before dawn Thursday, meeting with Army Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, before convening a 6 a.m. meeting that included Milley, Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks and other top defense officials. Milley also led a meeting of the Joint Chiefs at 5 a.m., a second defense official said. The general and Austin visited the White House later in the morning, huddling with the commander in chief about the crisis.

Biden, for his part, spent Wednesday evening mostly in the White House residence, watching the situation unfold on television and receiving regular updates from his national security team — a group that included Austin, Blinken, Milley and Sullivan.

In the end, the devastating outcome felt preordained.

“The basic truth is that Vladimir Putin was prepared to go to war to advance his interests in Ukraine, whereas the Western countries, including the United States — as much as they attempted to deter and disincentivize Russia from going to war — did not have an interest in going to war with Russia themselves over Ukraine,” said Klein, the CSIS associate. “That’s a basic imbalance in the interests.”

Michael McFaul, who served as the U.S. ambassador to Russia under President Barack Obama, similarly said he did not fault the Biden administration for the current conflagration.

“Basically, they had weak cards to play — they played them well,” McFaul said.

On Thursday, Biden found himself addressing the nation yet again on the war between Russia and Ukraine, offering yet another bleak assessment.

“Putin is the aggressor,” Biden said, standing in the East Room of the White House. “Putin chose this war, and now he and his country will bear the consequences.”

Dan Lamothe and Tyler Pager contributed to this report.

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