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‘Bleak’ new intelligence assessment driving new urgency from Biden administration on Russia

<i>Sergey Guneev/Kremlin Pool Photo/Sputnik/AP</i><br/>Russian President Vladimir Putin gestures as he speaks during a joint news conference with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz following their talks in the Kremlin in Moscow
Sergey Guneev/Kremlin Pool Photo/Sputnik/AP
Russian President Vladimir Putin gestures as he speaks during a joint news conference with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz following their talks in the Kremlin in Moscow

By Jim Sciutto and Natasha Bertrand, CNN

The latest US intelligence assessment indicates that Russia is continuing with preparations to invade Ukraine, according to a senior US official with direct knowledge and another source directly familiar with the intelligence.

The assessment — described as “bleak” by the senior official — indicates Russia could attack in the coming days. The US still expects any Russian invasion to be prefaced by a false flag operation, another US official said.

However, US officials caution they do not know if Putin has made a final decision to invade and note he may delay action or not order it at all. Earlier assessments forecasting military action by Russia this week did not bear out.

The US has briefed the Ukrainian military on the newest assessment, according to a senior US official and a senior Ukrainian government official.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken, speaking at the Munich Security Conference on Friday, pointed to recent actions — including Russia adding “leading edge forces” to its troops on Ukraine’s border — to show that Russia’s coercive tactics towards Ukraine are already in play.

“Everything that we’re seeing, including what you’ve described in the last 24, 48 hours is part of a scenarios that is already in play of creating false provocations, of then having to respond to those provocations, and ultimately committing new aggression against Ukraine,” Blinken said.

Blinken said what Russia has done in recent days has the US on alert. “The facts are that despite what Russia has said in recent days about pulling back forces from the border, that has not happened,” he said. “On the contrary, we see additional forces going to the border, including leading edge forces that would be part of any aggression. So we have to be informed by that. We have to be extremely vigilant.”

President Joe Biden warned Thursday that “every indication” leads him to believe Russia could invade Ukraine in the coming days. “My sense is it will happen in the next several days,” the President said the White House South Lawn.

The US is now watching for signs that Russian preparations have entered the final stage, including the loading of amphibious ships and the further positioning of combat units closer to the Ukrainian border.

Austin warns Russia is moving military as if ‘they were preparing to launch an attack’

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin warned Friday that Russia is moving military elements as if “they were preparing to launch an attack,” he added, noting that NATO has observed Russia moving and dispersing troops near the Ukrainian border, and increasing its logistical capabilities in the region.

The US also remains concerned that Russia may attempt to create a false pretext for invasion by staging attacks on its own territory or forces which it would blame on Ukraine or the West. Blinken laid out the range of potential scenarios before the US Security Council Thursday. “Russia may describe this event as ethnic cleansing or a genocide, making a mockery of a concept that we in this chamber do not take lightly,” Blinken said.

Separately, the US has obtained intelligence suggesting that Russia deliberately misled the world when it announced earlier this week that some Russian forces would begin withdrawing from Ukraine’s borders, according to two sources directly familiar with the intelligence.

The Washington Post first reported on the intelligence about Russia’s deliberate deception.

Putin had said on Tuesday that Russia had decided “to partially pull back troops” from Ukraine’s borders, and the Russian Defense Ministry released videos on Wednesday showing some forces and equipment leaving Crimea.

But the US has evidence that Russia intended to deliberately deceive the West when it announced these drawdowns, the sources said, and has instead increased its troop presence and moved forces closer to the border in some areas.

The sources declined to go into further detail about the evidence, citing the need to protect sensitive sources, but emphasized the information about Russia’s deception was not solely based on their movements on the ground and was based partly on intercepted communications. And as CNN has previously reported, US officials are aware that Russian military doctrine explicitly embraces deception — a concept known in Russian as “maskirovka,” or “masking.”

Administration officials indicated as much on Wednesday, when they told reporters that despite its announcements about a partial withdrawal, Russia had actually increased its troop numbers by approximately 7,000 forces.

The officials said Putin’s public openness to diplomacy was a guise.

“Every indication we have now is they mean only to publicly offer to talk, and make claims about de-escalation, while privately mobilizing for war,” one of the officials said on Wednesday.

Shelling has also dramatically increased in eastern Ukraine in the last day, which Ukraine has attributed to Russia-backed forces.

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CNN’s Jeremy Herb, Kylie Atwood, Michael Conte and Jennifer Hansler contributed to this report.

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