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U.S. stands ready to evacuate Zelensky, Russia’s ‘target No. 1’

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said on Feb. 25 that Russian forces started bombarding residential area of Kyiv. (Video: Reuters)
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The U.S. government is prepared to help Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky leave Kyiv to avoid being captured or killed by advancing Russian forces, according to U.S. and Ukrainian officials. But so far, the president has refused to go.

As the Russian military ratcheted up its attacks on Friday, a defiant Zelensky pledged to remain in charge of his government despite grave personal risk. “According to the information we have, the enemy has marked me as target No. 1, my family as target No. 2,” he told Ukrainians in an early-morning address. “They want to destroy Ukraine politically by destroying the head of state.”

For weeks, Zelensky has heard those warnings from U.S. officials.

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When CIA Director William J. Burns flew to Ukraine in January to meet with Zelensky about the growing Russian threat to his country, the Ukrainian president asked whether he or his family were personally in danger, according to a Zelensky aide, who said that the leader was skeptical the Russians would try to kill him.

Burns didn’t share specific information but made clear that Zelensky needed to take his personal security seriously, the aide said.

The CIA declined to comment.

At the time, intelligence suggested that Russian hit teams might already be in Kyiv, well before the first forces ever crossed the border, according to officials familiar with the information who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive material.

U.S. officials in recent days have spoken to Zelensky about a variety of security issues, including the safest places for the president to situate himself to ensure continuity of the Ukrainian government, said a senior U.S. official.

“We have been making him aware not only of the threat of Russian invasion, now a reality, but also the threat to him personally,” Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif), the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said. “We stand ready to assist him in any way.”

Removing Zelensky might offer Russian President Vladimir Putin the swiftest way to end the war in Ukraine or avoid a protracted, costly occupation, several current and former national security officials said this week.

With the Ukrainian leader out of the picture, Putin could try to install a puppet replacement.

In January, the British government accused the Kremlin of scheming to replace Zelensky with a pro-Russian politician and former member of Ukraine’s parliament.

Schiff said he worried that if the Russians captured Zelensky, they could hold him incommunicado or force him to make concessions.

“I’m deeply concerned with the threat to his life and well being,” Schiff said.

As the Biden administration and Western allies warned an invasion was coming, Zelensky publicly downplayed the threat. He and his aides acknowledged that Putin might order the forces massing in huge numbers on Ukraine’s borders to strike, but they said U.S. and other European leaders also risked igniting a public panic and economic catastrophe with their constant warnings of an imminent attack.

Now that Russia has struck, U.S. officials warned again this week that Putin’s goal was to decapitate the Ukrainian government. White House press secretary Jen Psaki indicated to reporters on Thursday that the United States had plans to assist Zelensky if he were personally threatened.

“We’re not going to get into security — security questions, but we are in touch with President Zelensky, and we are working to provide him a range of support,” Psaki said.

According to a Ukrainian official, Zelensky has not directed his own security services to remove him to a safe city, such as Lviv, although they stand ready to do so.

Fending off rumors that he had fled, Zelensky posted a video on Telegram on Friday surrounded by his top advisers and the prime minister in front of Bankova, Ukraine’s equivalent to the White House.

“We are all here. Defending our independence. Our country. And so it will continue,” Zelensky said.

Zelensky noted in his earlier remarks that his family remained in Ukraine, as well, but he declined to say where.

He also said that “sabotage groups” had infiltrated Kyiv, without saying whether they were targeting him personally.

Later, Zelensky’s administration said in a public statement that “enemy reconnaissance and sabotage groups operate insidiously, disguising themselves in civilian clothes and infiltrating cities to destabilize the situation by carrying out sabotage operations.”

Some officials praised the Ukrainian leader for staying in place despite the risk to himself and his government and the warnings he has received.

“The U.S. has been very forward-leaning both in sharing threat information with the government of Ukraine, including President Zelensky, as well as declassifying a significant amount of intelligence to ensure that the world knew about Russia’s plans for this unprovoked aggression,” said Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.), the chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee. “President Zelensky has courageously decided to stay and lead from Kyiv.”

Paul Sonne and John Hudson in Washington and David L. Stern in Lviv, Ukraine, contributed to this report.