By Jennifer Hansler and Paul LeBlanc, CNN
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky remains a “prime target for Russian aggression,” US State Department spokesperson Ned Price said Thursday evening amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Speaking with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer on “The Situation Room,” Price said Zelensky “does, in many ways, represent — even personify — the democratic aspirations and ambitions of Ukraine — of the Ukrainian people.”
“So of course, he would remain a prime target for Russian aggression,” he said.
The Ukrainian President and his team “are going to make decisions in the coming hours, in the coming days, based on what’s in the best interest of them, what’s in the best interest of Ukrainian people, what’s in the best interest of the Ukrainian state,” Price added.
Russia had launched an invasion of Ukraine earlier Thursday, sending troops into the ex-Soviet nation from three fronts and firing missiles on several locations near the capital, Kyiv, in a broad attack that has drawn deep condemnation from world leaders.
At dawn, troops and armor crossed into eastern Ukraine from the Russian border, as well as from Belarus in the north and from Russia-annexed Crimea to the south.
In a video statement late Thursday, Zelensky said, “According to our information, the enemy marked me as target No. 1, my family as target No. 2. They want to destroy Ukraine politically by destroying the head of state. We have information that enemy sabotage groups have entered Kyiv.”
“I am staying in the government quarter together with others,” he added.
Asked about Zelensky’s comments, Price noted that “several weeks ago we made the point that Russian agents had already infiltrated Ukraine; they were operating inside the country.”
“I’m not in the position to tell you right now precisely where they are, but we know that the Russian government orchestrated this and has been working on this for weeks now,” Price said. “This is part of their playbook, just as we have seen other elements of their playbook play out just as we warned.”
Price said he wished the US government had been wrong about what it had said it expected Russia to do, “but unfortunately, our information has been proven correct at every turn.”
“That is why we have deep concern about what it is that we may see the Russian Federation attempt to do in the coming hours, in the coming days,” he said.
In an interview on ABC News taped before Zelensky’s statement, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said he was “convinced” that Russian President Vladimir Putin would try to overthrow Ukraine’s government.
Blinken also said in a separate interview on “CBS Evening News” that it is clear Putin has ambitions beyond Ukraine. “You don’t need intelligence to tell you that that’s exactly what President Putin wants. He has made clear he’d like to reconstitute the Soviet Empire. Short of that, he’d like to reassert a sphere of influence around the neighboring countries that were once part of the Soviet bloc,” he told the outlet.
The top US diplomat, however, maintained that NATO would stand in the way of Putin’s ultimate goals:
“Now, when it comes to a threat beyond Ukraine’s borders, there’s something very powerful standing in his way. That’s Article 5 of NATO: An attack on one is an attack on all.”
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CNN’s Tim Lister contributed to this report.