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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12:57 p.m. ET, February 18, 2022

Second breakaway region in Ukraine organizes evacuation of civilians

From CNN’s Tim Lister in Kyiv 

The leader of the second self-declared republic in eastern Ukraine has announced that the evacuation of civilians to Russia is being organized. The announcement follows a similar move by the pro-Russian authorities in Donetsk.

Leonid Pasechnik, the most senior official in the Luhansk People's Republic, said in a statement that he had “due to the escalation of tension on the contact line, instructed the heads of the territories of the Republic to ensure the organized evacuation of the population ... and help the population in the delivery to border checkpoints.”

Pasechnik said “the Russian Federation is ready to provide organized reception and accommodation on its territory of residents of the Luhansk People's Republic.”

“Once again, I appeal to all men who are able to hold weapons in their hands, to defend their land,” Pasechnik added.

He accused Ukrainian forces of violating the ceasefire regime 29 times in the last day and listed 13 towns that he said had been shelled.

Donetsk Mayor Andrei Kulemzin spoke Friday about evacuating his citizens on Russian state-owned Russia-24 news.

"We are working round-the-clock to get our citizens out of the line of fire. Everything is going smoothly so far," Kulemzin said. "Our priority is to first get out our children, then women, then the elderly," he added.

Earlier today, CNN reported that the leader of the breakaway Donetsk region in eastern Ukraine, Denis Pushilin, has appealed to civilians to begin a mass evacuation because of what he described as Ukrainian aggression.

Pushilin said that from "today, Feb. 18, a mass centralized evacuation of the population to the Russian Federation has been organized."

"By agreement with the leadership of the Russian Federation in the Rostov region, the places of reception and accommodation of our citizens are ready," Pushilin said. 

"All conditions have been created for a quick transition at checkpoints." Pushilin said the order was given because of Ukraine's "daily build-up of troops and lethal weapons, including Smerch and Uragan multiple launch rocket systems, NLAW rocket sets, as well as Javelins and Stingers along the entire contact line." 

Sebastian Shukla and Anastasia Graham-Yooll contributed reporting to this post.

9:58 a.m. ET, February 18, 2022

German foreign minister: This is not a Ukraine crisis, but "a Russia crisis"

From CNN's Nadine Schmidt and Amy Cassidy

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said that the ongoing Ukraine-Russia crisis should be framed not as an Ukraine crisis, but as a “Russia crisis," while warning of a “new war impeding right in the middle of Europe."

Baerbock said a Russian troop buildup around Ukraine is “an absolutely unacceptable threat,” to Ukraine and to the “peace architecture in Europe," during her opening statement at the Munich Security Conference on Friday.

Baerbock said earlier in the week that the West observed a ''glimmer of hope'' in the Ukraine-Russia crisis, ''but we now need to see proof of Russian troops withdrawal," adding that Germany is still considering ''all options on the table, including Nord Stream 2 ''regarding potential unprecedented sanctions on Russia.''

Baerbock added that Germany is ready to ''fight for every millimeter (of peace) — and every millimeter is better than none at all,” on the diplomatic front exclusively. 

Due to the country's role in World War II, Germany is not exporting weapons to Ukraine and under its very restrictive arms control legislation is only selling weapons to its NATO and European partners.

''We have different roles, we have different histories," Baerbock said.

''If you balance the consequences, we believe at this moment it is not the moment to change our course," adding that Germany is not the same as its allies, and has a “different responsibility for securing international peace than others.''
9:33 a.m. ET, February 18, 2022

US secretary of state points to last 24-48 hours showing Russia's false provocations

From CNN's Kylie Atwood, Michael Conte and Jennifer Hansler

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken cited the last 24-48 hours, including Russia adding "leading edge forces" to its troops on Ukraine's border, to show that Russia’s coercive tactics toward Ukraine are already in play.

“Everything that we’re seeing ... is part of a scenario that is already in play of creating false provocations, of then having to respond to those provocations, and ultimately committing new aggression against Ukraine,” Blinken said at the Munich Security Conference on Friday. 

 Blinken said what Russia has done in recent days has the US on alert.

"The facts are that despite what Russia has said in recent days about pulling back forces from the border, that has not happened. On the contrary, we see additional forces going to the border, including leading edge forces that would be part of any aggression. So we have to be informed by that. We have to be extremely vigilant."

Blinken said the US is doing “everything” possible to make clear that there is a diplomatic path forward but is “deeply concerned” that Russia is not pursuing that path. 

“Even as we are doing everything we possibly can to make clear that there’s a diplomatic path, that this has to be resolved, the differences have to be resolved through dialogue, through diplomacy, we are deeply concerned that that is not the path that Russia has embarked on,” Blinken said.

9:27 a.m. ET, February 18, 2022

US defense secretary calls for "de-escalation" in talk with Russian counterpart

From CNN's Ellie Kaufman

US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin spoke with his Russian counterpart on Friday as tensions between Russia and Ukraine remain extremely high, and Russia continues to add troops and build up its military presence at Ukraine’s border. 

Austin “called for de-escalation, the return of Russian forces surrounding Ukraine to their home bases and a diplomatic resolution,” according to a readout of the conversation with Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu and provided by the Pentagon.

Austin is currently traveling in Poland as a part of a week-long trip. He was at the NATO defense ministerial in Brussels on Thursday.

9:53 a.m. ET, February 18, 2022

"Bleak" new intelligence assessment driving new urgency from Biden administration on Russia

From CNN's Jim Sciutto and Natasha Bertrand

The latest US intelligence assessment indicates that Russia is continuing with preparations to invade Ukraine, according to a senior US official with direct knowledge and another source directly familiar with the intelligence.

The assessment — described as “bleak” by the senior official — indicates Russia could attack in the coming days. The US still expects any Russian invasion to be prefaced by a false flag operation, another US official said. 

However, US officials caution they do not know if Putin has made a final decision to invade and note he may delay action or not order it at all. Earlier assessments forecasting military action by Russia this week did not bear out. 

The US has briefed the Ukrainian military on the newest assessment, according to a senior US official and a senior Ukrainian government official. 

US President Joe Biden warned Thursday that “every indication” leads him to believe Russia could invade Ukraine in the coming days. “My sense is it will happen in the next several days,” the President said the White House south lawn.

The US is now watching for signs that Russian preparations have entered the final stage, including the loading of amphibious ships and the further positioning of combat units closer to the Ukrainian border.

US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin warned Friday that Russia is moving military elements as if “they were preparing to launch an attack,” he added, noting that NATO has observed Russia moving and dispersing troops near the Ukrainian border, and increasing its logistical capabilities in the region. 

The US also remains concerned that Russia may attempt to create a false pretext for invasion by staging attacks on its own territory or forces which it would blame on Ukraine or the West. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken laid out the range of potential scenarios before the United Nations Security Council Thursday.

"Russia may describe this event as ethnic cleansing or a genocide, making a mockery of a concept that we in this chamber do not take lightly," Blinken said.

 

9:17 a.m. ET, February 18, 2022

US diplomat: Russia likely to have "massed between 169,000-190,000 personnel in and near Ukraine"

From CNN’s James Frater

Russia has “probably has massed between 169,000-190,000 personnel in and near Ukraine as compared with about 100,000 on Jan. 30,” Michael Carpenter, the US ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, said Friday. 

This estimate includes military troops along the border, in Belarus, and in occupied Crimea; Russian National Guard and other internal security units deployed to these areas; and Russian-led forces in eastern Ukraine,” Carpenter told a special OSCE meeting on Russia-Ukraine tensions, according to a statement.

“While Russia has sought to downplay or deceive the world about their ground and air preparations, the Russian military has publicized its large-scale naval exercises in the Black Sea, Baltic Sea and the Arctic," he said.

"Russia has publicly said the Black Sea exercise alone involves more than 30 ships, and we assess that amphibious landing ships from the Northern and Baltic Fleets were sent to the Black Sea to augment forces there,” he continued.  

In the statement, Carpenter laid out seven steps he recommends the Russians fulfill in order to “reduce risk of miscalculation and lower tensions.”

The steps include:

  • accounting for all military activities associated with its deployments in the vicinity of Ukraine and other nearby neighbors.
  • including aerial inspections of areas of concern and confirmation of the redeployment of all forces to peacetime location.
  • addressing questions specific to the request by Ukraine regarding the number of troops, major weapons and equipment systems, and units involved from the Russian armed forces.

The OSCE is a 57-member security organization that also includes the US and Canada.

The large estimate of 160,000-190,000 Russian personnel by the US includes Russian troops on the borders of Ukraine as well as the Russian-led forces in eastern Ukraine, an administration official tells CNN.

The earlier estimate this week from a senior administration official on approximately 150,000 forces was just borders and did not factor in the Russian-backed separatists.

CNN's Kaitlan Collins contributed reporting to this post.

2:01 p.m. ET, February 18, 2022

Russia's Putin says military exercises are "purely defensive and do not threaten anyone"

From CNN’s Sarah Dean in Moscow and Nada Bashir

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, left, and Russian President Vladimir Putin during a joint news conference following their talks at the Kremlin in Moscow, on February 18.
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, left, and Russian President Vladimir Putin during a joint news conference following their talks at the Kremlin in Moscow, on February 18. (Sergei Guneyev/TASS/Getty Images)

Russia's President Vladimir Putin said his country’s military exercises are "purely defensive and do not threaten anyone."

While speaking during a joint news conference with Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko on Friday in Moscow, Putin said joint drills with Belarus will continue until Sunday. He said both countries' defense ministries announced the "exercises well in advance."

"We discussed in detail our common defense space between Russia and Belarus. We will continue to take steps towards common defense, considering the increasing presence of NATO on the borders of our Union State," Putin said following their meeting.

 

8:50 a.m. ET, February 18, 2022

CNN on the ground in Ukraine: Inside the kindergarten that was hit by shelling in the Donbas region

The Ukrainian military took a group of journalists to the town of Stanytsia Luhanska in eastern Ukraine, where both Ukrainian armed forces and separatists controlling parts of the Donbas region reported renewed shelling on Thursday, according to CNN's Clarissa Ward.

Video and images confirmed by CNN show that a kindergarten in Ukrainian-controlled territory was hit by a shell Thursday.

"There is great concern that this situation could be escalating, because while that war, that front line has been going on for many years between the Ukrainian military and pro-Russian separatists ... there are broad concerns that this could be used as the situation if it continues to escalate as a pretext for President Putin to try to launch some kind of an incursion," Ward reported.

CNN has established that the school is less than five kilometers (about three miles) from what is known as the Line of Contact, which separates the two sides. CNN has not established who initiated the exchange of fire. 

Watch what the CNN crew saw on the ground:

10:56 a.m. ET, February 18, 2022

A Russian invasion of Ukraine would be "catastrophic," UN secretary general says

From CNN’s Nadine Schmidt and Amy Cassidy

UN Secretary-General António Guterres at the Munich Security Conference in Germany, on February 18.
UN Secretary-General António Guterres at the Munich Security Conference in Germany, on February 18. (Sven Hoppe/picture-alliance/dpa/AP)

A Russian invasion of Ukraine would be “catastrophic,” UN Secretary-General António Guterres said Friday during his opening remarks at the Munich Security Conference in Germany, calling for diplomatic efforts to continue.

“I am deeply concerned about heightened tensions and increased speculation about a military conflict in Europe. I still think it will not happen but, if it did, it would be catastrophic,” Guterres said.

“There is no alternative to diplomacy. All issues, including the most intractable, must be addressed through diplomatic frameworks. It is high time to seriously de-escalate,” he added.

The UN secretary general also noted that “geopolitical divides continue to grow,” and called for “serious dialogues to continue.”