Putin says Belarus' leader will join military exercise Saturday
From CNN's Uliana Pavlova and Nathan Hodge in Moscow
Russian President Vladimir Putin said Friday that Belarus leader Alexander Lukashenko would accompany him during a military exercise Saturday.
“Now an active phase exercise [of military drills] is underway, and tomorrow we will even take part together in one of the serious events in this complex of military cooperation,” Putin said in a televised meeting with Lukashenko in Moscow.
Earlier Friday, the Russian defense ministry announced that Putin would oversee exercises of the strategic deterrence forces involving the launch of ballistic and cruise missiles. Putin gave no further specifics regarding the exercise in his remarks with Lukashenko.
7:09 a.m. ET, February 18, 2022
Putin says Russia, Belarus made "serious progress" in building "Union State"
From CNN's Uliana Pavlova and Nathan Hodge in Moscow
Russia and Belarus have made “serious progress” in merging the political and economic structures of their two countries, Russian President Vladimir Putin said Friday during a meeting with Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko.
“We have made serious progress in the construction of the 'Union State,'” Putin said. “Our colleagues have worked hard and have prepared 28 good programs, and development has been going on in many of these areas for a long time."
The two leaders have overseen efforts to deepen the integration of the two countries as part of a longstanding project to develop a so-called "Union State," and Putin noted updated bilateral initiatives in migration, economy, and military matters, among other items.
7:05 a.m. ET, February 18, 2022
Biden to hold a virtual conference with EU, NATO and other leaders, says France
From CNN’s Xiaofei Xu in Paris
US President Joe Biden will hold a conference with various leaders from Canada, Europe, and NATO to discuss the Ukrainian crisis, the French presidential office said on Friday.
According to a list shared by the Élysée Palace, the participants will include: US President Biden, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, President of European Union Commission Ursula von der Leyen, President of European Council Charles Michel, Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, Polish President Andrzej Duda, Romanian President Klaus Johannis, United Kingdom Prime Minister Boris Johnson and French President Emmanuel Macron.
7:04 a.m. ET, February 18, 2022
Russian military shows video of tanks on trains for third day in a row
From CNN’s Jonny Hallam and Akanksha Sharma
For the third day in a row, Russia's defense ministry has published a video that it said showed tanks and armored tracked vehicles being returned to base after the "completion of planned exercises."
The video released Friday and filmed at night from multiple vantage points, including from an aerial drone, shows dozens of military vehicles being moved by rail on flatcars.
Without providing details of where the night video was shot, a statement from Russia's Ministry of Defense said the military equipment was being transported to a "point of permanent deployment" 1,000 km away in the Nizhny Novgorod region.
"Upon arrival at the military base the servicemen will proceed to perform maintenance on the military equipment and prepare them for further planned combat training activities," the statement said.
This comes after Russia's Defence Ministry said Wednesday that its Southern and Western military districts units were moving back to their military garrisons.
Western officials have expressed skepticism over some of the claims. On Thursday, recent satellite images from Maxar Technologies showed Russian forces consolidating and adding to their positions in several regions close to Ukraine. On Thursday, US President Joe Biden warned that Russia could invade Ukraine within days.
CNN has been unable to confirm if the latest Russian Ministry of Defense statements accurately reflect the situation on the ground.
7:03 a.m. ET, February 18, 2022
Russia expelled second-most senior diplomat at the US embassy in a tit-for-tat measure, foreign ministry says
From CNN’s Uliana Pavlova in Moscow
Russia expelled the second-most senior diplomat at the US embassy in response to the expulsion of a Russian diplomat from the US, Russian foreign ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova said in a statement published late Thursday.
Last week, US Deputy Chief of Mission in Moscow Bart Gorman was expelled without any justification in what the Biden administration views as an escalatory move, the State Department said on Thursday. It happened while Russia and the US are in a tense standoff over Ukraine, which the US says it fears Moscow plans to invade.
Zakharova explained: “The American diplomat was indeed ordered to leave Russia, but strictly in response to the unreasonable expulsion of the Minister-Counsellor of our Embassy in Washington, despite his status as a leading official."
“We repeat once again: the mass expulsions of diplomats and the growing visa war is not our choice,” she said.
US says Russia plans to manufacture justification for war
From CNN's Jeremy Herb, Veronica Stracqualursi, Kylie Atwood and Ellie Kaufman
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Russia was laying the groundwork to justify starting a war and preparing to launch an attack on Ukraine in the coming days, urging Moscow to change course at a tense United Nations Security Council meeting Thursday.
Blinken changed his travel plans so he could speak at Thursday's UN meeting, where the top US diplomat said he was detailing US intelligence about Russia's attempts to fabricate a pretext for an invasion in an attempt to "influence Russia to abandon the path of war and choose a different path while there's still time."
I am here today not to start a war, but to prevent one," Blinken said.
The United States says evidence at Ukraine's border shows that Russia is "moving towards an imminent invasion" and is not withdrawing troops, despite Moscow's claims. The comments from Blinken and other top US officials Thursday — including President Joe Biden's blunt warning that he believed an attack would happen "within the next several days" — marked an even greater sense of urgency from the Biden administration that Russia's actions indicated the Kremlin was moving forward with plans for war.
"Every indication that we have is that they are prepared to go into Ukraine, attack Ukraine," Biden told reporters as he left the White House on Thursday.
Russia once again dismissed the notion it was preparing to attack Ukraine as "baseless accusations."
In his address to the Security Council, Blinken laid out several steps the US expected Russia to take in the coming days in an attempt to justify military action in Ukraine. He said Moscow was likely to try to generate a pretext for the war, which could be a fabricated terrorist bombing inside Russia, the invented discovery of a mass grave or a staged drone strike.
"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.
Blinken said that top Russian officials were likely to hold urgent meetings before an attack that would include Russian bombings across Ukraine and cyberattacks. He added that the US believes Moscow has already selected targets that Russian tanks and troops would advance on, including Ukraine's capital, Kyiv.
Blinken acknowledged "that some have called into question our information," nodding to past problems with US intelligence in the run-up to the Iraq War. But he said the US would be relieved if its predictions are proven incorrect and Russia changes course.
Ukraine says two soldiers injured in continued fighting in the east
From CNN’s Tim Lister in Kyiv
The Ukrainian military says its forces have suffered two casualties as a result of “enemy fire” along the frontlines in eastern Ukraine.
The Joint Forces Operation announced that the two service members were wounded in action. Both are in hospital, it said, with one of the soldiers in a serious but stable condition.
It said that, as of 11 a.m. local time (4 a.m ET), Russian-backed separatists had carried out 33 violations of the ceasefire, including 22 incidents in which they fired weapons prohibited by the Minsk Agreements.
Some context: The war in eastern Ukraine started in 2014 and has claimed the lives of more than 14,000 people. Intense fighting in 2014 and 2015 left portions of eastern Luhansk and Donetsk in the hands of Russian-backed separatists.
Those separatist-controlled areas in Ukraine's Donbas region, became 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.
The Minsk II agreement of 2015 led to a shaky ceasefire agreement, and the conflict settled into static warfare along the Line of Contact that separates the Ukrainian government and separatist-controlled areas. The Minsk Agreements (named after the capital of Belarus where they were concluded) ban heavy weapons near the Line of Contact.
6:33 a.m. ET, February 18, 2022
US defense secretary: "Still time for diplomacy” on Ukraine crisis
From CNN’s Nada Bashir
There is “still time for diplomacy” between Russia and NATO to find a resolution to the ongoing Ukraine crisis, US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said Friday. He cautioned however that the US and its allies “will be ready” should Russian President Vladimir Putin decide to invade Ukraine.
The United States, in lockstep with our allies and partners, including Poland, has offered Mr. Putin a path away from crisis and towards greater security,” Austin said.
“Whatever path he chooses, the United States and our allies and partners will be ready,” he added.
Speaking during a joint press conference alongside his Polish counterpart Mariusz Blaszczak in Warsaw, Austin noted that the US continues to observe a buildup of Russian forces near the Ukrainian border.
“Although Russia has announced that it is moving its forces back to garrison, we have yet to see that. In fact, we see more forces moving into that border region,” Austin told reporters. “We also see them continuing to prepare by doing things that you would expect military elements to do as 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 United States also continues to move material assistance to Ukraine to help the Ukrainians defend themselves. Fortunately, neither Poland or the United States are alone in dealing with this challenge,” Austin said.
“The entire [NATO] alliance stands with Ukraine in supporting its sovereignty, its territorial integrity, and its right to choose its own path and relations with its neighbors and the rest of the world,” he added.
6:31 a.m. ET, February 18, 2022
Polish defense minister thanks US counterpart for American troops, tanks, and jets
From Amy Cassidy
Poland’s National Defense Minister Mariusz Blaszczak thanked his US counterpart for deploying American troops to the country amid fears of Russian aggression during a joint press conference on Friday.
“Mr. Secretary, thank you very much for the American forces in Poland and also your declaration about [the] possibility to reinforce NATO and Poland, if required in future,” he said, speaking alongside US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.
He also thanked Austin personally for his role in reinforcing the Polish military with Abrams tanks and F35 fighter jets and highlighted the importance of strengthening NATO’s flank in eastern Europe.
Poland is in defense of our eastern border but also [the] eastern flank of NATO. That's why NATO engagement is so important for us. We face huge challenges," Blaszczak said.
He described Russia’s military buildup around Ukraine as “the biggest security crisis since the end of the Second World War.”
The "best answer" to the threats posed by Russia is NATO not being afraid and staging a deterrence, he said, adding: "We can see this policy being implemented when American troops are deployed in Poland.
“Unity of NATO is the best answer to aggressive behavior of Russia. Russian imperialist behavior requires from all allies activities that would deter Russia," he said.
"American soldiers' arrival in Poland will support our defense. We will provide all necessary assistance to American soldiers as required.”