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How Putin’s attack on Ukraine unfolded inside the White House

<i>Alex Wong/Getty Images</i><br/>U.S. President Joe Biden delivers remarks on Russia and Ukraine in the East Room of the White House on February 15 in Washington
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Alex Wong/Getty Images
U.S. President Joe Biden delivers remarks on Russia and Ukraine in the East Room of the White House on February 15 in Washington

By Kevin Liptak, CNN

President Joe Biden was working the phones with top national security officials in the moments before and after his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin announced he was launching a military intervention in Ukraine, the grim fulfillment of Biden’s predictions stretching back weeks.

National security aides had already been huddling in the West Wing on Wednesday evening, preparing for what US officials had warned was a looming assault on Ukraine, when Putin’s speech began airing on Russian television around 9:45 p.m. ET.

Appearing before dawn in Russia, the speech came as a surprise.

At the United Nations, Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield had spoken by phone to Biden in the moments prior to her remarks at an emergency session of the Security Council. He asked her “to convey in the strongest possible terms his — and our — steadfast support for Ukraine,” she said around 9:45 p.m. ET — almost exactly the same time as Putin’s address.

Her speech didn’t reflect the major development that Putin had officially announced the invasion. Photos from the room show her texting with the Ukrainian delegate, saying she “wished I had the news before I ended my remarks.”

At the White House, Biden convened a secure phone call with top military brass Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and national security adviser Jake Sullivan, according to the White House.

Just past 10 p.m. ET, activity in the West Wing briefly came to a halt as televisions tuned to CNN showed teams reporting hearing explosions in Kyiv and Kharkiv, hurriedly donning their protective gear and helmets.

In their offices, Sullivan and other aides worked on drafting Biden’s initial statement declaring Russia’s actions “unprovoked and unjustified” and vowing “the world will hold Russia accountable.” Biden’s statement came through at 10:25 p.m. ET.

Roughly an hour later, a request came in from Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelensky to speak with Biden, who was eager to get him on the phone. Earlier in the day, officials took note of Zelensky’s public concerns, including declaring a state of emergency and mobilizing military reservists, believing it was first time he had conveyed publicly the concerns they have discussed privately for weeks.

On their call, which lasted approximately ten minutes, Zelensky asked Biden to “call on the leaders of the world to speak out clearly against President Putin’s flagrant aggression, and to stand with the people of Ukraine.”

As Biden was speaking to Zelensky, his aides were also on the phone to Europe as they prepared to announce what one official described as the “full scale” of sanctions, which could include export controls, restrictions on large banks and blocks on members of Putin’s inner circle.

Biden received additional briefings on Thursday morning before attending a virtual session of the G7, where the sanctions will be discussed among the world’s leading industrialized nations. Biden is scheduled speak Thursday afternoon to the American people from the White House.

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