The latest on the Ukraine-Russia border crisis

By Tara John, Adrienne Vogt and Melissa Macaya, CNN

Updated 3:41 a.m. ET, February 19, 2022
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2:16 p.m. ET, February 18, 2022

Ukraine and US say vehicle explosion in separatist-controlled city was staged

From CNN's Tim Lister and Olga Voitovych in Kyiv

The remains of a military vehicle following an explosion is seen in a parking lot outside a government building in central Donetsk, Ukraine, on February 18.
The remains of a military vehicle following an explosion is seen in a parking lot outside a government building in central Donetsk, Ukraine, on February 18. (Nikolai Trishin/TASS/Getty Images)

Ukrainian and US officials said a vehicle explosion in a Russian-backed separatist stronghold was a staged attack designed to stoke tensions in eastern Ukraine.

Video from the city of Donetsk in eastern Ukraine showed a fire in a parking lot and badly damaged military vehicle, close to the headquarters of the self-declared Donetsk People's Republic (DPR) – one of the areas of the country controlled by Russian-backed separatists.

An official channel of the DPR said that "Around 19:00, a car was blown up in the parking lot near the Government House building. The blast wave was heard by the whole city. The Ministry of Emergency Situations went to the place of the explosion."

Images and video showed emergency services at the scene and a badly damaged vehicle identified by CNN as a Russian-made jeep. There's no way to verify what caused the damage to the vehicle or the fire.

“We think that this is a staging and a provocation,” Anton Gerashchenko, advisor to the Ukrainian Interior Minister, told CNN on WhatsApp. A US State Department spokesperson described it as a “false flag operation” and said incidents like the vehicle explosion and calls from separatist leaders to evacuate because of alleged Ukrainian aggression represented “further attempts to obscure through lies and disinformation that Russia is the aggressor in this conflict.”

More context: US officials and other Western leaders have repeatedly warned that Russia may stoke violence in eastern Ukraine to create a pretext for a full-fledged invasion.

This comes after Monitors of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) reported a sharp escalation in ceasefire violations along the frontlines dividing Ukrainian and separatist forces in eastern Ukraine since Thursday.

The OSCE said as a result of "allegations of civilian casualties and damage to civilian properties and infrastructure sites over the past 24 hours, the Mission rerouted a number of its patrols in Donetsk and Luhansk regions, including to a kindergarten and a railway station in Stanitsya Luhanska (government-controlled, 16km north-east of Luhansk)."

Both sides in the conflict accused the other of ceasefire violations Thursday.

The war in eastern Ukraine started in 2014 and has claimed the lives of over 14,000 people. Intense fighting in 2014 and 2015 left portions of eastern Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts in the hands of Russian-backed separatists. The DPR is not recognized by any government, including Russia.

CNN's Kylie Atwood and Jennifer Hansler contributed reporting from Washington and Munich, respectively.

1:47 p.m. ET, February 18, 2022

Ukrainian officials deny any plans for military action in eastern part of country

From CNN's Tim Lister

A building damaged in the clashes between Ukrainian army and pro-Russian separatists, in Avdiika, Donetsk Oblast of Ukraine on February 17.
A building damaged in the clashes between Ukrainian army and pro-Russian separatists, in Avdiika, Donetsk Oblast of Ukraine on February 17. (Ali Atmaca/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

The chief of Ukraine's armed forces, Lt. Gen. Valerii Zaluzhnyi, joined other officials in an effort to speak out and reassure people in the breakaway eastern regions that the Ukrainian military has no plan to launch an offensive.

"The statements about the alleged offensive operation of the Armed Forces of Ukraine and the forceful scenarios of liberation of the temporarily occupied territories are not true," he said.

"Ukraine does not plan or conduct offensive operations. The only acceptable option for us to de-occupy our people and territories is political and diplomatic," he said.

"An offensive operation in Donbas will inevitably cause civilian casualties, that is why such scenarios are not even considered," Zaluzhnyi said in a Facebook message.

Separately, the Ukraine foreign ministry said: 

"Ukrainian nationals reside on both sides of the contact line. Their peace, security and well-being are an absolute priority for Ukraine.  
Allegations that the Ukrainian government intends to launch an offensive operation in the temporarily occupied territories of Donetsk and Luhansk regions are divorced from reality. 
Ukraine is also not conducting or planning any sabotage acts in Donbas.
We categorically reject the attempts of Russia to aggravate the already tense security situation. We remain firmly committed to politico-diplomatic settlement and, together with our partners, maximise efforts to reduce the tension and keep the situation in line with diplomatic dialogue.
In contrast, we observe the Russian Federation unfolding its campaign to disseminate massive disinformation, increasing shelling of Ukrainian positions and civilian infrastructure, using the weapons banned by the Minsk Agreements, and escalating the security situation."

On Friday, leaders in separatist-controlled areas announced they would be evacuating their citizens.

Some more background: The separatist-controlled areas in Ukraine's Donbas region are known as the Luhansk People's Republic (LPR) and the Donetsk People's Republic (DPR). The Ukrainian government in Kyiv asserts the two regions are in effect Russian-occupied. The self-declared republics are not recognized by any government, including Russia. The Ukrainian government refuses to talk directly with either separatist republic.  

12:55 p.m. ET, February 18, 2022

Biden called in to Harris' Munich meeting with members of Congress and gave update on Ukraine, source says

From CNN's Natasha Bertrand in Munich

US President Joe Biden called in to a meeting US Vice President Kamala Harris was holding with members of Congress who are also attending the Munich Security Conference in Germany Friday, according to a person in the room.

Biden reiterated the work the US and allies have been doing to try to prevent a Russian invasion of Ukraine. 

He also updated the members on the situation at Ukraine's borders. 

Biden is scheduled to deliver remarks on the Ukraine situation from the White House later on Friday. 

12:53 p.m. ET, February 18, 2022

US officials met with major banks to discuss potential Russian cyberattacks, sources say

From CNN's Sean Lyngaas and Phil Mattingly

Officials from multiple US agencies met Thursday with executives from big US banks to discuss how they might respond to Russian hacking threats as US officials warn that Russia could invade Ukraine at any time, five people briefed on the meeting told CNN. 

The meeting — which covered how to defend against potential Russia-backed hacking attempts against US financial institutions should the Biden administration sanction Russian entities — shows how US officials continue to see cyberspace as a domain of risk so long as the Ukraine crisis drags on. 

The meeting came as US President Biden and his top officials spent the day laying out dire warnings about the potential for a Russian invasion.

Those warnings have coincided with efforts to lay the groundwork for an array of sanctions the US and allies have promised would be deployed in the event of Russian military action. 

Officials from the White House, Treasury Department, FBI and US Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency attended the cybersecurity meeting Thursday, the people familiar with the meeting said. Executives from JPMorgan Chase and Citigroup, which is the only US bank currently operating in Ukraine, were invited. 

"We have good insight into Russian capabilities, or those of aligned actors, based on past actions, so we've approached this [process] with those in mind," one US official told CNN. 

US officials such as CISA Director Jen Easterly continue to say there are "no specific credible threats to the US homeland' stemming from the Russian military's surrounding Ukraine. But officials are also preaching vigilance and, as CNN reported Monday, asking private executives to lower their thresholds for reporting suspicious digital activity to the government.

A Treasury spokesperson declined to comment on Thursday's meeting. JPMorgan Chase and Citigroup declined to comment. 

A senior administration official told CNN that the White House and federal agencies have been preparing since November for "any potential disruptions to our critical infrastructure and possible impacts to individuals and communities."

Read the full story here.

11:26 a.m. ET, February 18, 2022

US President Biden will speak about Russia today

From CNN's Betsy Klein

Members of the Ukrainian National Guard man a checkpoint with Ukrainian Security Service agents and police officers during a joint operation in Kharkiv, Ukraine, on February 17.
Members of the Ukrainian National Guard man a checkpoint with Ukrainian Security Service agents and police officers during a joint operation in Kharkiv, Ukraine, on February 17. (Evgeniy Maloletka/AP)

US President Joe Biden will speak about the Ukraine-Russia crisis at 4 p.m. ET on Friday, according to a release from the White House.

He is expected to give “an update on our continued efforts to pursue deterrence and diplomacy, and Russia’s buildup of military troops on the border of Ukraine," according to the release.

11:21 a.m. ET, February 18, 2022

Ukraine reports more than 50 ceasefire violations in eastern part of the country

From CNN's Tim Lister and Anastasia Graham-Yooll

Ukraine's defense ministry reported Friday that as of 17:00 local time (10 a.m. ET), there have been "52 violations of ceasefire recorded and 42 of those used ammunition forbidden by the Minsk Agreement."

The Russian-backed separatist regions have in turn accused Ukrainian forces of shelling residential areas under their control.

Under the Minsk agreements, both sides must withdraw heavy weapons from the front lines. 

On Thursday, Ukrainian armed forces and separatists controlling parts of eastern Ukraine reported renewed shelling in the Donbas region on Thursday, where a kindergarten was hit by a shell.

10:35 a.m. ET, February 18, 2022

France's president calls for end to military activity in Ukraine's Donbas region

From CNN’s Martin Goillandeau in London and James Frater in Brussels

French President Emmanuel Macron on Friday called for an end to military activity in Ukraine’s Donbas region, after both the Ukrainian armed forces and separatists controlling parts of eastern Ukraine spoke of renewed shelling. 

“In a context where Russian military pressure does not weaken, where destabilization increases, where bombings in the contact zone have resumed, we call first of all for the cessation of these military actions, and for a rapid de-escalation,” Macron said at the European Union — African Union summit in Brussels. “Very clearly, there are [military] actions that have multiplied. These actions, in our opinion, must stop because they contravene the agreements that have been reached, the ceasefires that have been respected until now, and for which all parties involved had recently reiterated their support."

Macron said that teams from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) would have to clarify the events of the last few hours and days. 

In an earlier statement, the OSCE said the organization is “aware that Russia is intent on creating a pretext to justify an invasion” into Ukraine, and has received reports which detail Russia’s “efforts to fabricate supposed ‘Ukrainian provocations’ and shape a public narrative that would justify a Russian invasion.”

“Starting several weeks ago, we acquired information that the Russian government was planning to stage a fabricated attack by Ukrainian military or security forces against Russian sovereign territory, or against Russian-speaking people in separatist-controlled territory, to justify military action against Ukraine,” the OSCE statement outlines. 

“We must resolutely rebut the false narrative about a Ukrainian ‘escalation’ which finds no evidence whatsoever in the reports of the OSCE’s Special Monitoring Mission,” the statement added. 

Macron echoed remarks by other NATO allies, noting that he had seen “no evidence of Russian military disengagement at this stage.” 

“I welcome President (Vladimir) Putin's statements, but I believe that if we want to be a reliable partner, it is always good that actions are in line with statements, and therefore we want to be able to have concrete elements that follow them,” he told reporters.

“We call for the reopening of constructive negotiations, because we continue to believe that this situation can be resolved through dialogue,” Macron said. 

He also noted that the “next few hours” would “see close coordination between European and American allies,” who will aim to provide an “appropriate response” by the end of the day. 

“I have heard the words of the Russian president. Now we need to move to action, and we need to work with great precision and commitment to stabilize and then de-escalate the situation in collaboration with Russia," Macron said. "That is essential."

10:20 a.m. ET, February 18, 2022

Putin says Russia must strengthen economy "from within" to counter sanctions threat 

From CNN’s Uliana Pavlova and Nathan Hodge in Moscow

Russian President Vladimir Putin called the threat of new Western sanctions "a gross violation of international law," saying the country must "strengthen ourselves from within" to overcome it.  

Russia has been threatened with major new sanctions by the West if it invades Ukraine. 

"That's sanctions pressure. Firstly, it is absolutely not legal, it is a gross violation of international law, which those who are now talking about it care for only when it is beneficial to them. And when it does not suit them, then they forget about all the norms of international law," Putin said in a news conference on Friday. 

"The only way to overcome such a state of affairs is to strengthen ourselves from within," he added.

Putin also alleged that a reason would be found to impose sanctions on Russia, regardless of the outcome of the Ukraine crisis. 

"First of all, of course, in the sphere of economy, sanctions will be imposed in any case ... Because the goal is different, the goal is to slow down the development of Russia and, in this case, Belarus," he said following his meeting with Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko. 

10:51 a.m. ET, February 18, 2022

Kyiv mayor makes plea to US and Germany for more defensive weapons

From CNN's Kylie Atwood and Michael Conte

The moon is seen over the Ukrainian capital Kyiv, on February 18.
The moon is seen over the Ukrainian capital Kyiv, on February 18. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)

Vitali Klitschko, the mayor of Kyiv, made a plea for more defensive weapons to German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken during a panel at the Munich Security Conference on Friday. 

"It's very important right now," Klitschko said, acknowledging the support from Germany and the US, "but we need, right now, defensive weapons."

"Every aggressor who just seek to attack Ukraine have to understand, they have to pay painful price. We’re ready to fight," he said.

Klitschko previously called Germany's offer to Ukraine of 5,000 helmets a “joke," but this time, he thanked Germany for the 5,000 helmets, but said those are not enough.

"We can’t defend our country just with that," Klitschko said.

Baerbock noted that the Ukrainians had asked for helmets and that there is a new list of requests from Ukraine, and Germany is looking at what else they can do.

In the last year alone, the US has provided $650 million in defensive lethal assistance to Ukraine, and that assistance would continue, Blinken said. 

During the panel, Baerbock also spoke to the constraints Germany has when it comes to arms sales because of its history.

“That’s why we have a very restrictive arms control legislation," she said. "Because of our history, we have this legislation that we are saying, we are not selling weapons to everybody in the world, but only to our partners, NATO partners and European Union partners."

Blinken said that the countries are not just coordinating with one another but also acting in a way that is complementary to one another.