The latest on Ukraine and Russia tensions

By Joshua Berlinger, Nick Thompson, Peter Wilkinson, Aditi Sangal, Adrienne Vogt, Maureen Chowdhury, Melissa Macaya and Mike Hayes, CNN

Updated 1202 GMT (2002 HKT) February 17, 2022
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8:19 a.m. ET, February 16, 2022

The Kremlin says the "level of danger remains high" over Ukraine's Donbas region

From CNN's Anna Chernova and Nathan Hodge in Moscow 

Pro-Russian Serviceman with a machine gun observing the front line in the dugout of the people's militia of the Luhansk People's Republic, Donbas, Ukraine on February 3
Pro-Russian Serviceman with a machine gun observing the front line in the dugout of the people's militia of the Luhansk People's Republic, Donbas, Ukraine on February 3 (Svetlana Kysilyova/ABACA/Reuters)

Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov warned of the possibility of escalation by Ukrainian forces around the separatist-held regions of eastern Ukraine. 

Asked how likely such a development might be, Peskov said, "The level of danger remains high."

"We are drawing the attention of our interlocutors in every possible way to the dangerous concentration of forces (in Ukraine) and to the fact that a military operation and an attempt to resolve the issue by force in the southeast is quite likely," Peskov said in a conference call with reporters on Wednesday.

"This is real. We have all witnessed that Kyiv began a military operation in Donbas, started a civil war. There have been such precedents," he continued.

The US and its allies have warned of potential provocations or "false flag" attacks that might be orchestrated by Russia to potentially justify a military offensive against Ukraine. 

The Donbas region has been under the control of Russian-backed separatists since 2014 and is referred to by Ukraine as "temporarily occupied territories." Russian forces are also present in the area, although the Kremlin denies it.

Peskov also used the call to welcome US President Biden's calls for diplomacy in a White House speech on Tuesday.

9:18 a.m. ET, February 16, 2022

CNN on the ground in Ukraine: EU envoys show support for Ukraine and laud the calmness of those in Kyiv

From CNN's Ivana Kottasová in Kyiv, Ukraine

Ambassadors of European countries lay roses at the Wall of Remembrance to mark a "Day of Unity" in Kyiv,  on February 16. The wall contains the names and photographs of military members who died since the conflict with Russian-backed separatists began in 2014.
Ambassadors of European countries lay roses at the Wall of Remembrance to mark a "Day of Unity" in Kyiv, on February 16. The wall contains the names and photographs of military members who died since the conflict with Russian-backed separatists began in 2014. (Timothy Fadek/Redux for CNN)

The embassy of the European Union in Kyiv was flying the Ukrainian flag on Wednesday, for the first time ever.

Matti Maasikas, the EU ambassador to Ukraine, said he wasn’t sure the act was strictly in line with protocol, but added these were not ordinary times. 

Maasikas told CNN the EU was standing firmly behind Ukraine and was still hoping for a peaceful solution. 

“The Ukrainian authorities have our unwavering support,” he said. “We are all hopeful that reason will prevail, but we have already seen how one can exhaust the neighboring country by amassing troops at your neighbor's border, to exhaust the country economically, psychologically, energy-wise. And that is absolutely unacceptable."

Maasikas was one of several European diplomats attending a commemorative ceremony at the Memorial Wall, a monument dedicated to those who defended Ukraine during the war that started in 2014.

He said that while the crisis involving Russia and Ukraine remains in the headlines around the world, Ukrainians themselves remain calm. 

"There is no panic. The atmosphere is resolute. Ukraine has been at war for almost eight years now," Maasikas said.

Anka Feldhusen, the German ambassador to Ukraine, agreed. She hasn't noticed much panic on the streets of Kyiv in recent weeks, even as the US and NATO continued to issue ever more alarming warnings about the risk of a Russian invasion.

She likened the situation to the earlier days of the Covid-19 pandemic in Kyiv. While people in countries like the United States and United Kingdom hoarded toilet paper and flour, Ukrainians stayed calm.

"Of course people are worried, they all read now what's written everywhere. But I admire the Ukrainians for their calmness, and the way that they know life has to go on … they have suffered through so many things in the last 30 years, I think they're probably used to, but they're just very, very calm people,” she said.

Feldhusen has recently found herself in hot water over a diplomatic spat between her country and Ukraine. Last month, she was summoned to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine, a diplomatic step that is rarely used between allies. 

The Ukrainian government has been critical of Germany for not providing more military help to Kyiv. Berlin announced last month it would supply 5,000 military helmets to Ukraine as tensions grew with Russia — in addition to a field hospital and medical training — but no lethal weapons.

“I think our relations are on a very, very strong basis. They're always ups and downs,“ she said. “I don't think it's a misunderstanding. I think that we have to work very hard in Germany to understand what we can do to help and what we can't.”

Yulia Kesaieva contributed reporting to this post

7:57 a.m. ET, February 16, 2022

Russia to insist on NATO’s refusal to accept Ukraine, according to head of Russia's OSCE delegation

From CNN’s Uliana Pavlova in Moscow

Russia will insist that NATO publicly states it will not accept Ukraine as a member, said Konstantin Gavrilov, the head of Russia's delegation to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, according to Russian state news agency RIA-Novosti. 

"Russia will insist that NATO publicly announces its refusal to accept Ukraine into its ranks,” Gavrilov said Wednesday at the plenary session of the OSCE Forum for Security Cooperation in Vienna. 

“Kyiv, in turn, must proclaim its neutral, non-aligned status, as provided for in the Declaration on State Sovereignty of Ukraine of July 16, 1990," Gavrilov added. 

Some background: Barring Ukraine's membership into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization is one of Russia’s three key demands to the US and the NATO alliance, along with a halt to further expansion eastward of the alliance and the rollback of NATO’s military infrastructure to 1997 positions. Ukraine is committed through a constitutional amendment to NATO membership.

6:59 a.m. ET, February 16, 2022

NATO says Russia appears to be continuing its military build-up around Ukraine

From CNN’s James Frater at NATO HQ in Brussels and Nada Bashir in London

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg listens to a question from a journalist as he arrives for a meeting of NATO defense ministers at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, on February 16.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg listens to a question from a journalist as he arrives for a meeting of NATO defense ministers at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, on February 16. (Olivier Matthys/AP)

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg says it appears Russia is continuing its military buildup on the border with Ukraine, despite Moscow's claim it was sending some troops back to base.

“We have heard signs from Moscow about readiness to continue diplomatic efforts, but so far we have not seen any de-escalation on the ground. On the contrary, it appears that Russia continues the military buildup,” Stoltenberg said Wednesday. “We will continue to convey a very clear message to Russia that we are ready to sit down and discuss with them, but at the same time we are prepared for the worst."

Stoltenberg’s remarks come just a day after Russia announced that some troops from its southern and western military districts had begun returning to their bases following exercises, although Moscow has said that military drills will continue to be held.

Speaking ahead of a meeting of NATO defense ministers on Wednesday, Stoltenberg stressed that NATO remains hopeful that Russia will engage in “meaningful dialogue” and choose to pursue diplomacy rather than confrontation.

“We are closely monitoring and following what they're doing,” Stoltenberg said. “If they really start to withdraw forces, that's something we will welcome, but that remains to be seen."

The secretary general noted that NATO has observed a steady increase in Russia’s military capabilities near the Ukrainian border over the last few weeks and months, with “well over 100,000” troops believed to be near the border. 

“Russia retains the capability of a full-fledged invasion of Ukraine, without any warning time,” he added.

11:27 a.m. ET, February 16, 2022

"We are not afraid": Kyiv marks a "Day of Unity" in the face of feared conflict

From CNN's Ivana Kottasová in Kyiv, Ukraine

People carry a 200 meter-long Ukrainian flag at the Olympic stadium to mark a "Day of Unity" in Kyiv on February 16.
People carry a 200 meter-long Ukrainian flag at the Olympic stadium to mark a "Day of Unity" in Kyiv on February 16. (Timothy Fadek/Redux for CNN)

The largest flag in Ukraine -- all 200 meters (656 feet) of it -- was on display at Kyiv’s Olympic stadium on Wednesday, with hundreds of people holding it up while singing the national anthem and other patriotic songs. 

They were marking Ukraine’s “Day of Unity," an impromptu celebration declared by

President Volodymyr Zelensky.

For Serhii Kachinskyi, 45, Unity Day is all about showing the world that everyday Ukrainians like himself are not afraid of potential armed conflict. 

We have lived with this for eight years, we understand what’s happening and we are not afraid, we are standing together and this is in the heart of every Ukrainian,” he said. 

While he said the situation has felt the same for much of past eight years, he sees one big difference.

We became more united, we are thinking more about the country and we became more responsible,” he said. 
Serhii Kachinskyi
Serhii Kachinskyi (Ivana Kottasova/CNN)

Wednesday's significance: Zelensky announced that today would be a "Day of Unity" during an address to the nation on Monday, remarking with irony that his government was told Wednesday was the day Russia would invade Ukraine.

“We are told that February 16 will be the day of the attack. We will make it the Day of Unity. The relevant decree has already been signed. On this day, we will hoist national flags, put on blue and yellow ribbons and show the world our unity,” Zelensky said.

While the celebrations were muted, with some events around the country only attended by a handful of people, flags large and small were flying on many street corners.

The digital panels normally displaying commercials in Kyiv’s streets were switched to a video showing the flash flying, and some government buildings were covered with giant blue and yellow banners.

Explaining war to children: Natalya Schamych said she came to the stadium in order to be a good example for her son. Kids were not allowed at the event, but she will relay the events to him. Schamych wants her son to grow up to be a responsible citizen, so she often talks about politics and civic duty with him, she said.

“I’d like for him to stay in our country and to have a desire to leave. I want him to have respect for the country, to live and work here,” she said. 

She said her son was too young to understand the full picture, but that he knows what is going on.

“We are trying to give him information in a way he can understand, we don’t want him to get too scared," she said. “In the kindergarten, they are learning about this, they have army people come in explain the situation, he knows where he lives, he knows that there is a war."
Natalya Schamych said she came to the stadium to be a good example for her son.
Natalya Schamych said she came to the stadium to be a good example for her son. (Timothy Fadek/Redux for CNN)

Life goes on: Meanwhile, rushing to work in central Kyiv, 48-year-old Alim wrapped himself in a Ukrainian flag as if it was a superhero cape. He has been carrying the flag with him every day for eight years now, he told CNN.

As a Crimean Tatar, he never accepted the Russian annexation of his home region in 2014.

“It’s my civilian position. I am from Crimea, I’ve been wearing it since the occupation,” he said.

Alim, who is from Crimea, says he has been carrying his Ukrainian flag around every day for the past eight years -- ever since Russia annexed the peninsula.
Alim, who is from Crimea, says he has been carrying his Ukrainian flag around every day for the past eight years -- ever since Russia annexed the peninsula. (Ivana Kottasova/CNN)

Around the corner, foreign dignitaries, including the German and EU ambassadors to Ukraine, were laying flowers by the Memorial Wall dedicated to those who defended Ukraine during the war that started in 2014.

Many pinned their coats with blue and yellow ribbons to show their solidarity with Ukraine. 

For Alim though, Wednesday was just another day. Another day of wearing the flag, going about his own business.

Yulia Kesaieva contributed reporting to this post.

6:30 a.m. ET, February 16, 2022

EU chief warns of "massive human costs" and "tough sanctions" if Russia chooses war

From CNN’s James Frater in Brussels, Akanksha Sharma in Hong Kong and Nada Bashir in London

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen speaks in a debate on European security and the Russian military threat against Ukraine during a plenary session at the European Parliament on February 16 in Strasbourg, France.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen speaks in a debate on European security and the Russian military threat against Ukraine during a plenary session at the European Parliament on February 16 in Strasbourg, France. (Frederick Florin/AFP/Getty Images)

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen warned of "massive human costs" should Russia invade Ukraine, but said a diplomatic solution to the crisis was still within reach.

Diplomacy has not yet spoken its last words," she said.

Addressing the European Parliament plenary session on Wednesday in Strasbourg, the EU chief described the massing of Russian troops around Ukraine’s border as “the largest build-up of troops on European soil, since the darkest days of the Cold War.”

Russia on Tuesday said that some forces would be pulled back from their deployments following military drills, but NATO has not yet seen signs of any true reduction, von der Leyen said. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Tuesday that troops were returning to their bases as part of a “normal process” after the completion of military exercises.

'Strong and united': Von der Leyen warned that if Kremlin chooses violence then “our response will be strong and united” and “our sanctions can bite very hard and the Kremlin knows this well.”

The sanctions would likely target Nord Stream 2, a multibillion dollar gas pipeline from Russia to Germany.

Von der Leyen said Europe is on the “safe side for this winter” if Russia decides to “partially or completely disrupt gas supplies," but energy is a major political issue in central and eastern Europe, where gas supplies from Russia play an essential role in power generation and home heating. Natural gas prices are already near record highs in Europe, and a conflict in Ukraine could bring more pain to consumers.

Von der Leyen said that going forward, the crisis has shown that Europe must diversify its energy sources so it is no longer heavily dependent on Russian gas.

“We must heavily invest in renewables,” she said.

6:19 a.m. ET, February 16, 2022

It's "positive" that Biden wants to continue talks, Kremlin says

From CNN's From Anna Chernova and Sarah Dean in Moscow

Biden delivers remarks on the Russia-Ukraine crisis in the East Room of the White House on February 15.
Biden delivers remarks on the Russia-Ukraine crisis in the East Room of the White House on February 15. (Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images)

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said it is "positive" that US President Joe Biden wants to continue talks on the Ukraine crisis.

"It is positive that the US President is also noting his readiness to start serious negotiations," Peskov said during his daily call with journalists on Wednesday. 

Peskov's comments came just hours after Biden delivered an address on the geopolitical situation playing out in eastern Europe.

Biden said there is "plenty of room for diplomacy" with Russia that could avoid a conflict in Europe and laid out areas where Washington and Moscow can continue talking.

Biden also directly appealed to Russian citizens, telling them "you are not our enemy."

Peskov said the Kremlin welcomed those comments, but said the speech would have been more impressive if it also addressed the Ukrainian people and "called on the Ukrainian people not to shoot at each other anymore. That would be great."

6:00 a.m. ET, February 16, 2022

EU's top diplomat says Russia-Ukraine tensions are Europe's "worst crisis" since end of Cold War

From CNN’s Dalal Mawad, James Frater, Akanksha Sharma and Nada Bashir

Josep Borrell speaks in a debate on European security and the Russian military threat against Ukraine during a plenary session at the European Parliament in Strasbourg on February 16.
Josep Borrell speaks in a debate on European security and the Russian military threat against Ukraine during a plenary session at the European Parliament in Strasbourg on February 16. (Frederick Florin/AFP/Getty Images)

The European Union's top diplomat said the current geopolitical standoff between Russia, NATO and Ukraine is the “worst crisis" Europe has lived through "since the end of the Cold War.”

At an EU plenary session in Strasbourg on Wednesday, Josep Borrell said a potential Russian incursion into Ukraine would pose “a threat to the territorial integrity of a state” that "affects the direction of humankind.”

The Kremlin has denied it has plans to invade Ukraine. Russian officials said Tuesday that some units from its southern and western military districts were returning to base after completing their exercises, though major military drills will continue. 

Borrell, echoing similar sentiments from NATO and Western leaders, said that those withdrawal announcements need to be checked.

“Russia is playing hot and cold,” Borrell told French radio station France Inter on Wednesday. “There are encouraging signs maybe, but we need to verify them." 
5:53 a.m. ET, February 16, 2022

No Russian troops or equipment will remain in Belarus after military drills end, Belarus says

From CNN’s Anna Chernova and Sarah Dean in Moscow

Belarus Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei gives a press conference at the National Press Centre in Minsk, Belarus, on February 16.
Belarus Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei gives a press conference at the National Press Centre in Minsk, Belarus, on February 16. (Maxim Guchek/TASS/Getty Images)

No Russian troops or military equipment will remain in Belarus after the two countries finish holding joint military drills together, Belarus Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei said at a news conference on Wednesday, according to state run news agency BELTA.

The Kremlin has also previously said Russian troops will be withdrawn after exercises end, without giving concrete timelines. 

The exercises, dubbed "Allied Resolve 2022," began on February 10 and are due to end on February 20.

The drills cover a wide area in southern Belarus and feature advanced Russian equipment, including ground attack aircraft and anti-missile defenses. NATO estimates that 30,000 Russian forces are involved, in what is believed to be one of the biggest deployments since the Cold War.