The US government is urging all Americans to leave Ukraine within the next 24 to 48 hours, saying that Russian President Vladimir Putin could launch an attack “at any time.”
It was previously believed that an attack would not happen until the Beijing Olympics ended on Feb. 20. But now, national security adviser Jake Sullivan said Friday that “It could begin during the Olympics.”
“We encourage all American citizens who remain in Ukraine to depart immediately," Sullivan said at a news conference. “If you stay, you are assuming risk.”
He also warned that if there was an attack, the military may not be able to rescue people.
An attack, Sullivan said, could begin with aerial bombing and missiles that kill civilians. A "rapid assault" on the city of Kyiv is also possible, he added.
US officials on the ground have also been taking steps suggesting a possible attack on the country was imminent.
BuzzFeed News has confirmed US Embassy officials in Kyiv have been discussing staff reductions and a move to western Ukraine.
US officials have also requested that US members of the Organization for Security and Co-Operation in Europe, which has been tracking and monitoring ceasefire violations omn the eastern border of Ukraine, be pulled out of the region.
US officials, BuzzFeed News has learned, have asked for US members of the monitoring group, more than 40 people, to be out of the region by Feb. 15.
On Friday, the State Department was also reaching out to individual US citizens who remained in Ukraine, asking them if they had made arrangements to leave the country.
The warning to US citizens in the region came after a PBS report that Putin had made the decision to invade Ukraine. But Sullivan pushed back on the report, saying the US does not believe Putin "has made any kind of final decision."
However, he said it was clear from the ground and other sources that an attack seemed not just likely, but imminent.
"The way [Putin] has built up his forces, and put them in place, along with other indicators that we have collected through intelligence, makes it clear to us there is a very distinct possibility that Russia will choose to act militarily and there is reason to believe that could happen on a reasonably swift timeframe," he said. "The Russians are in a position to be able to mount a major military action in Ukraine any day now."
Sullivan also warned once more about the possibility of Russia creating a "false flag" operation, or producing a false event in order to create a pretext to invade Ukraine.
"We are calling that out publicly because if Russia does move to do that, they should be held to account," he said.
Sullivan declined to predict whether Russian military action would look to invade a portion of Ukraine — like it did in Crimea in 2014 — or if it would be a more expansive attack.
He added that there was a "real possibility" that Russia could move to invade "a significant amount of territory in Ukraine and a series of major cities, including the capital city."
The UK issued a similar travel warning to its citizens, urging them to "leave now while commercial means are still available."
Like the US, the UK has withdrawn embassy staff from the region. The UK embassy remains open, according to the announcement, but will be unable to provide in-person help.
Sullivan urged even those who might be financially unable to travel out of Ukraine to contact embassy officials, who would be able to provide financial assistance to them for getting out of the country.
Once an attack on the country begins, Sullivan warned, travel by road, rail, or air would be immediately disrupted.
"I'm not standing here saying what is going to happen or not happen; I'm only standing here to say now that the risk is now high enough and the threat is immediate enough," he said.