February 20, 2023 - Russia-Ukraine news

By Tara Subramaniam, Rob Picheta, Leinz Vales, Eve Brennan, Ed Upright, Mike Hayes, Elise Hammond and Maureen Chowdhury, CNN

Updated 12:24 a.m. ET, February 21, 2023
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5:04 p.m. ET, February 20, 2023

Gov. Ron DeSantis criticizes US involvement in the war in Ukraine

From CNN's Steve Contorno and Kit Maher

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks on February 15 in West Palm Beach, Florida.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks on February 15 in West Palm Beach, Florida. (Wilfredo Lee/AP)

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis criticized American aid to Ukraine as an "open-ended blank check" and questioned whether the United States should be engaged in the Russian conflict at all.

"I don't think it's in our interest to be getting into a proxy war with China, getting involved over things like the borderlands or over Crimea," DeSantis told Fox & Friends on Monday, referring to the Ukraine territories that Russia has seized through military force.

The remarks, made on the occasion of Biden's surprise visit to Kyiv, Ukraine, were some of DeSantis' most direct comments about the US involvement in the war since the conflict started a year ago.  

Asked "what a win looks like" for the US, DeSantis downplayed Moscow's military actions to date and said Russia was "really wounded" and had suffered "tremendous, tremendous loses" without acknowledging the role that US weapons, military intelligence and aid have played in shaping the conflict.

DeSantis insisted Russia is not a threat "on the same level as China."  

"The fear of Russia going into NATO countries and all that, and steamrolling, that has not even come close to happening," DeSantis said. "I think they have shown themselves to be a third-rate military power."

3:56 p.m. ET, February 20, 2023

Biden has crossed into Poland after surprise trip to Ukraine

From CNN's Kevin Liptak

US President Joe Biden walks down a train corridor to his cabin after a surprise visit with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in Kyiv on February 20.
US President Joe Biden walks down a train corridor to his cabin after a surprise visit with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in Kyiv on February 20. (Evan Vucci/Pool/Getty Images)


US President Joe Biden has left Ukraine after a highly symbolic covert visit.

He crossed the border into Poland at roughly 8 p.m. local time (2 p.m. ET), according to a report from the traveling press pool.

Biden traveled by train in and out of Kyiv, making the 10-hour journey with only a handful of advisers and two journalists.

Biden flew to Poland aboard a C-32 aircraft with a refueling stop in Germany before boarding the train into Ukraine on Sunday.

The train went by night into Ukraine, making only a few stops to collect additional security.

3:59 p.m. ET, February 20, 2023

"A gun needs a bullet": EU’s top diplomat stresses importance of upping ammunition supply to Ukraine

From CNN’s James Frater and Jessie Gretener

The European Commission's High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell rings the bell before a meeting of Foreign Affairs Council at the EU headquarters in Brussels, on February 20.
The European Commission's High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell rings the bell before a meeting of Foreign Affairs Council at the EU headquarters in Brussels, on February 20. (Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP/Getty Images)

To counter a growing number of Russian troops, Ukraine needs more ammunition, in addition to other pledges of military support from allies, the European Union’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said.

Russia is massing “almost twice the number of soldiers that were there at the beginning of the war" in Ukraine, adding that the next few weeks will be crucial, he said.

“The Ukrainian army urgently needs large amounts of ammunition to counter Russian aggression,” Borrell said. "A gun needs a bullet.” 

“For that, time is of essence. Speed means lives. We need to respond quickly. Not only more support, but to provide it quicker,” Borrell added.

The best way to get ammunition to Ukraine quickly is to share existing European army stockpiles so that there is no time wasted waiting for them to be produced, he said.

"We have to use what has already been produced and stockpiled, or what has already been contracted and will be produced in the coming days. Priority has to be given to the supplies for the Ukrainian army, as much as we can," he said. 

Borrel also said a tenth package of sanctions against Russia was also discussed at a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Brussels on Monday, announcing that they have been “presented as a Regulation for the Council to approve," which should happen in the “next hours, or next days."

3:46 p.m. ET, February 20, 2023

Ukrainian foreign minister says not to "overestimate" Russian capacity to produce weapons 

From CNN’s Amy Cassidy in London and Amanpour show staff 

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba asserted to not "overestimate" Russian capacity to produce weapons, as he urged allies to expand sanctions against entities producing Russian missiles.  

Kuleba sat down with CNN's Christiane Amanpour at the Munich Security Conference over the weekend for an interview that aired on CNN on Monday.  

“Our partners have a tool in their hands to suppress this production, which is sanctions,” he said.

“For example, we proposed a very specific list of Russian entities involved in the productions of missiles. So put them on the sanctions, make their life even more complicated and suppress the production of missiles.”  

Addressing growing concerns in Europe that ammunition supplies are diminishing, Kuleba stated “there will never be enough ammunition as long as the war continues”.  

“Yes, if you ask me what we need the most here and now, I’d artillery munitions. If you ask me [to] imagine that’s solved, what is next, I’d say Howitzers to use this ammunition,” the foreign minister said. 

“Businesses need contracts and to have contracts you need money. Therefore, if governments want to support Ukraine, they can finance their own companies by contracting their production of ammunition and other weapons, and that’s what we are working on,” Kuleba continued. 

3:44 p.m. ET, February 20, 2023

Zelensky warns of world war risk if China backs Russia in Ukraine   

From CNN’s Sharon Braithwaite, Inke Kappeler and Xiaofei Xu 

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky listens as US President Joe Biden speaks at Mariinsky Palace during a surprise visit, on February 20 in Kyiv.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky listens as US President Joe Biden speaks at Mariinsky Palace during a surprise visit, on February 20 in Kyiv. (Evan Vucci/Pool/Getty Images)

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky warned that a world war could break out if China supported Russia against Ukraine.   

“My hope is that Beijing will maintain a pragmatic attitude, you risk World War III otherwise, I think they are well aware of that,” he said in an interview with prominent Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, published on Sunday — in response to the paper asking him if Kyiv thought China would send weapons to Russia.

Zelensky said he has personally appealed to the Chinese leadership through direct channels and publicly “not to offer any support” to Russia in the war. 

“From the early 1990s, at the Budapest Memorandum and for all the agreements reached since then, China has always kept its commitments. I personally hope that the international community will join together to support my 10-point peace plan, where American, Chinese and major power guarantees to defend world security are covered,” Zelensky told the newspaper.  

The Ukrainian president said that Ukraine’s relationship with China has always been “very good.” 

“We have had intense economic relations for many years, and it is in everyone's interest that they do not change. The global challenge is to thwart any risk of nuclear conflict,” he continued.  

On Sunday, the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken told CBS' "Face the Nation" program that Washington is concerned that China is considering providing “lethal support” to Russia’s war in Ukraine.   

3:00 p.m. ET, February 20, 2023

US among 34 countries calling for Olympics' ban of Russian and Belarusian athletes, statement says   

From CNN's Amy Cassidy in London  

The United States along with more than 30 other countries including Canada and most of Europe are backing a proposed ban of Russian and Belarusian athletes from competing in international sports, according to a joint statement published by the British government Monday. 

The countries asked the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to reverse its decision last month to create a pathway for Russian and Belarussian athletes to participate in the upcoming Games as “neutral athletes." 

“The situation in Ukraine has continued to deteriorate since the IOC barred Russian and Belarusian athletes last year – following their nations’ violation of the Olympic truce – and there is no reason for the IOC to reverse that decision,” according to the UK government summary of the statement.

“There are serious concerns about how feasible it is for Russian and Belarusian athletes to compete on a neutral basis given they are directly funded and supported by their states. As long as a workable ‘neutrality’ model is not set out in detail, Russian and Belarusian athletes should not be allowed back into competition," it added.

The statement went on to say that “there are clear concerns over the strong links and affiliations between Russian athletes and the Russian military," demanding that the IOC must address the questions identified by all countries and reconsider its proposal.

The statement is signed by sport and culture ministers of the US, Canada, UK, Austria, Belgium, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Japan, South Korea, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, The Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain and Sweden.  

Here's what the US previously said: Earlier this month, the White House said it did not object to allowing athletes from Russia or Belarus from taking part in the 2024 Summer Games and 2026 Winter Games — as long as it is "absolutely clear" that they are not representing their home countries, press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said.

"In cases where sports organizations and event organizers, such as the International Olympic Committee, choose to permit athletes from Russia and Belarus to participate in supporting events, it should be absolutely clear that they are not representing the Russian or Belarusian states," Jean-Pierre said, adding that the use of any official Russian or Belarusian flags, emblems or anthems should be prohibited.

2:18 p.m. ET, February 20, 2023

NATO chief: Putin is "not planning for peace" as war in Ukraine heads into its 2nd year

From CNN's Jessie Gretener

Jens Stoltenberg, Secretary General of NATO, speaks during the 2023 Munich Security Conference on February 18.
Jens Stoltenberg, Secretary General of NATO, speaks during the 2023 Munich Security Conference on February 18. (Johannes Simon/Getty Images)

No one knows how the war in Ukraine will end, but “there is no sign" that Russian President Vladimir Putin "has changed his ambitions" as the invasion approaches the one-year mark this week, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said.

“We see the opposite. He’s not planning for peace. He’s planning for more war,” he told CNN at the Munich Security Conference.

“They are launching offensive operations already,” the NATO chief said, pointing to fighting in eastern Ukraine, specifically the city of Bakhmut. "Whether this is the big spring offensive or whether it’s just a kind of prelude to that, it’s a bit hard to tell. But they are pouring in more and more troops and more and more weapons," he added.

Stoltenberg said Russia is trying to make up for poor equipment and logistics with more troops, something he described as "throwing just waves of people on the defensive lines," a type of fighting that hasn't been seen since World War I.

“If you don’t care so much about human lives then you just throw in more and more," he said.

Stoltenberg said while how the conflict will end is unclear, what he is sure of is the importance of western military support for Ukraine.

“If you want Ukraine to prevail as a sovereign nation and if you want a peaceful negotiated solution tomorrow, then you need to provide military support today,” he said, adding that the effectiveness of negotiations for Ukraine depends on "strength on the battlefield."

1:51 p.m. ET, February 20, 2023

Portugal is ready to send Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine next month, defense ministry says

From CNN's Radina Gigova

Portugal is ready to send three Leopard 2 A6 combat tanks to Ukraine in March, Portugal's defense ministry said in a statement earlier this month.

The decision was made within the framework of ongoing contacts with allies and partners, the ministry said on February 8. 

Some background: Several countries have offered to give tanks to Ukraine, though not all have confirmed how many they plan to send.

Much of southern and eastern Ukraine, where much of the heavy fighting is happening, is ideal terrain for combinations of modern Western tanks and armored fighting vehicles to spearhead a counteroffensive.

Additionally, Leopard 2s, Abrams and British Challengers all carry heavy machine guns, which would devastate infantry in open land. Another advantage of the Leopard 2, the tanks Portugal among other countries are planning to send, is that the ammunition for its 120 mm gun is widely available among NATO armies.

2:38 p.m. ET, February 20, 2023

Biden's historic and risky trip to Kyiv took months of planning and days of secrecy

From CNN's Kevin Liptak and Phil Mattingly

President Joe Biden and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky attend a press conference in Kyiv on February 20.
President Joe Biden and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky attend a press conference in Kyiv on February 20. (Dimitar Kilkoff/AFP/Getty Images)

Cloaked in secrecy and weighted with history, US President Joe Biden’s trip to Ukraine was the work of months of planning by only a small handful of his senior-most aides, who recognized long ago the symbolic importance of visiting the Ukrainian capital a year after Russia tried to capture it.

One year later, Kyiv stands,” Biden declared Monday during the visit. “And Ukraine stands. Democracy stands.”

A secret until the last minute: Keeping Biden’s plans secret required extraordinary measures on the part of the White House. In the weeks leading up to Biden’s travel, he and top aides repeatedly shot down the possibility of a trip to Ukraine. Every effort was made to maintain that position in the hour leading up to Biden’s surprise arrival in Kyiv.

That was in part due to the fluid nature of the trip itself. Even as the small circle of White House officials looped in on the planning grew confident it was an achievable undertaking, the realities of sending a president into a war zone where the US had no control over the air space were daunting.

The final decision was made in an Oval Office meeting on Friday evening, when Biden gave the final green light. Once the trip was on, US officials took steps to notify Moscow of their plans, an attempt at “deconfliction” meant to avoid unthinkable disaster while Biden was on the ground.

A 10-hour train ride through Ukraine: There would be a stop to refuel at a US base in Germany before continuing the flight into Poland. As he jetted eastward, Biden’s focus was plotting out his conversations with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, hoping to use his limited time wisely in discussing the coming months of fighting.

Biden landed in Rzeszow, the Polish town where he’d stopped in March of last year to visit US troops deployed near the Ukrainian border and humanitarian efforts supporting Ukrainian refugees. During that visit 11 months ago, he alluded to what became a long-running desire to extend his journey just a little further into Ukraine.

This time around, with an expanded set of US air assets overhead keeping close watch at the Polish border, he would make the trip. Biden, his small contingent of advisers and Secret Service that traveled with him boarded the train to Kyiv for the roughly 10-hour trip to the center of the war-torn country.

It was the culmination of a process that began months earlier, as Biden watched as a parade of his foreign counterparts each made the journey into Ukraine.

Calculated risk: As Biden was briefed over several months on the planning for a potential visit, the person said that Biden only once expressed concern about the risk of a visit to Ukraine — but that was about the extent to which his visit could endanger others, rather than about his own safety. Other officials were extremely concerned about Biden’s own safety and prepared a series of security contingency plans for the trip.

“This was a risk that Joe Biden wanted to take,” said White House communications director Kate Bedingfield. “It’s important to him to show up, even when it’s hard, and he directed his team to make it happen, no matter how challenging the logistics.”

Read more about Biden's historic trip here.

CNN’s Jeremy Diamond contributed reporting to this post.