How Putin’s attack on Ukraine was experienced inside the White House

(CNN) — President Joe Biden was on the phone with top national security officials in the moments before and after his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, announced he would launch a military intervention in Ukraine, the grim fulfillment of Biden predictions dating back to weeks ago.

National security advisers had already gathered in the West Wing on Wednesday night, preparing for what US officials had warned was an imminent attack on Ukraine, when Putin’s speech began airing on Russian television around at 9:45 p.m. ET.

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

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

His speech did not reflect the breakthrough that Putin had officially announced the invasion. Photos from the room show her texting with the Ukrainian delegate, saying she “wanted to get the news before I finished my remarks.”

US Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield speaks by phone with Ukraine’s Ambassador to the United Nations Sergiy Kyslytsya during a United Nations Security Council meeting on Wednesday. (Carlo Allegri/Reuters)

At the White House, Biden called a meeting in a secure phone call with top military brass, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan.

Just past 10 pm, televisions tuned to CNN showed teams of reporters reporting hearing explosions in Kyiv and Kharkiv, hastily donning their protective gear and helmets.

In his offices, Sullivan and other aides worked on the drafting of Biden’s opening message, in which he declared that Russia’s actions were “unprovoked and unjustified” and vowed that “the world will hold Russia to account.” Biden’s statement came at 10:25 p.m.

About an hour later, a request came from Ukraine 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 the declaration of a state of emergency and the mobilization of military reservists, believing it was the first time he had publicly aired concerns they had discussed privately for weeks.

In his call, which lasted about ten minutes, Zelensky asked Biden to “call on world leaders to speak out against President Putin’s blatant aggression and stand with the people of Ukraine.”

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

Biden will wake up this Thursday and receive additional briefings before attending a virtual session of the G7, where sanctions among the world’s leading industrialized nations will be discussed.

And at noon, Biden will speak to the American people from the White House.

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