The latest on the Ukraine-Russia crisis

By Lauren Said-Moorhouse, Jeevan Ravindran, Sana Noor Haq, Peter Wilkinson, Adrienne Vogt and Fernando Alfonso III, CNN

Updated 3:50 a.m. ET, February 20, 2022
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5:57 a.m. ET, February 19, 2022

European Commission President says world is “watching in disbelief” amid largest troop buildup since Cold War

From CNN's Manveena Suri in New Delhi

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen speaks at the Munich Security Conference in Germany, on February 19.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen speaks at the Munich Security Conference in Germany, on February 19. (Thomas Kienzle/AFP/Getty Images)

Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, said the world is “watching in disbelief” in the wake of the largest buildup of troops in Europe since “the darkest days of the Cold War.”

“The very reason that the European Union was once created is that we wanted to put an end to all European wars," von der Leyen said at the Munich Security Conference on Saturday.

The world has been watching in disbelief as we face the largest buildup of troops on European soil since the darkest days of the Cold War," von der Leyen continued.

She added that the events “could reshape the entire international order.”

Highlighting Ukraine’s recent celebration of 30 years of independence, von der Leyen said there is an entire generation of Ukrainians born and bred in a free country who are now “confronted on a daily basis with external aggression and interference.”

“This is what the Kremlin's policies mean in practice, to instil fear and call it security, demands to deny 44 million Ukrainians from deciding freely about their own future, to deny a free country's right to independence and self determination,” she added.

“The consequences of this approach matter well beyond Ukraine.”

Speaking about Russia and China, von der Leyen said, “They seek a new era, as they say, to replace the existing international rules.”

“They prefer the rule of the strongest to the rule of law, intimidation and self-determination, coercion instead of cooperation."

Meanwhile, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said Moscow was attempting to roll back history and recreate its sphere of influence.

“The current crisis demonstrates the importance of the transatlantic relationship for European security,” Stoltenberg said at the Munich Security Conference on Saturday.

“If the Kremlin's aim is to have less NATO on his borders, it will only get more NATO and if it wants to violate them, it will always get an even more united alliance,” said Stoltenberg, stating earlier that NATO was a defensive alliance and “will take all necessary measures to protect and defend.”

“Over the last years, our security environment has fundamentally changed for the worse. Peace cannot be taken for granted. Freedom and democracy are competitive and strategic competition is on the rise.”

5:27 a.m. ET, February 19, 2022

Putin and Macron to speak on phone Sunday

From CNN's Karen Smith and CNN’s Uliana Pavlova in Moscow

Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) and French President Emmanuel Macron give a joint press conference after meeting in Moscow on February 7.
Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) and French President Emmanuel Macron give a joint press conference after meeting in Moscow on February 7. (Thibault Camus/Pool/AFP/Getty Images)

Russian President Vladimir Putin and French President Emmanuel Macron will speak by phone on Sunday, Russia's state-run news agency RIA Novosti said Saturday, citing the Kremlin pool.

Macron has become Putin's most frequent person to have conversation with in recent days (in recent times). The leaders of Russia and France will talk by phone over the weekend," RIA Novosti reported in a Twitter post.

Putin is expected to attend planned military drills Saturday where ballistic and cruise missiles will be launched, RIA Novosti reported Friday, citing the Russian Ministry of Defense. 

“The exercises will involve the Aerospace Forces, the Strategic Missile Forces, the Northern and Black Sea Fleets,” the Russian Ministry of Defense said according to RIA. 

“The exercise of the strategic deterrence forces was planned earlier to test the readiness of forces and means,” it continued.

4:51 a.m. ET, February 19, 2022

Separatist leader orders general mobilization as Western nations warn of Russia staging incidents

From CNN’s Jake Kwon in Seoul

People are seen inside a bus in Donetsk, Ukraine, on Friday, February 18, after pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine's breakaway regions ordered the evacuation of civilians to Russia. 
People are seen inside a bus in Donetsk, Ukraine, on Friday, February 18, after pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine's breakaway regions ordered the evacuation of civilians to Russia.  (Erik Romanenko/TASS/Getty Images)

The leader of pro-Russian separatists in the breakaway state of Donetsk in eastern Ukraine, Denis Pushilin, ordered a general mobilization on Saturday.

Pushilin said he signed an order for general mobilization, claiming that Ukraine was planning an offensive against the region, also known as Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR), in a video published on his Telegram account.

"I appeal to all the men of the republic, who are able to hold weapons in their hands, stand up for their families, their children, wives, mothers,” Pushilin said.

The evacuation of civilians has commenced, and several buses carrying residents had already arrived in Rostov-on-Don in Russia, Pushilin added.

The bigger picture: On Friday, Pushilin urged women, children, and the elderly to evacuate to Russia ahead of a purported Ukrainian invasion. 

While there has been a sharp rise in ceasefire violations across what is known as the line of contact between Ukrainian and Russian-backed separatist forces in the past two days, Ukrainian officials deny any plans to retake the Donbas region by force, saying that they see this week's incidents as an effort by Russia to create a pretext to launch an invasion.

On Friday, Foreign Ministers of Germany and France said they do not see “any grounds” for DPR’s allegation, warning that “staged incidents could be misused as a pretext for possible military escalation."

4:22 a.m. ET, February 19, 2022

Ukraine's President vows to attend Munich Security Conference on Saturday

From CNN's Mick Krever in Kramatorsk, Ukraine

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky visits the border troops in Donetsk, Ukraine on February 17.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky visits the border troops in Donetsk, Ukraine on February 17. (Ukrainian Presidency/Handout/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has confirmed his presence at the Munich Security Conference on Saturday before returning to Kyiv later in the day, his office said in a statement Saturday morning. 

Zelensky will hold talks with UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and US Vice President Kamala Harris, the statement said.

"Zelensky expects concrete agreements on providing our country with additional military and financial support to strengthen Ukraine's resilience," it added.

The statement continued: "Naturally, the discussions at the Munich Security Conference this year will focus on current threats in Eastern Europe and the situation around Ukraine. Therefore, the position of our state must be presented enough for the issues of Ukraine to be resolved with the participation of Ukraine.

"The situation on the touch line in Donbas, in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea and near the borders of Ukraine is being analyzed by special services of our state. There is a constant analysis of intelligence and exchange of information with partners. Ukraine regularly receives additional up-to-date intelligence on the activity of Russian forces.

"The situation in the east of the country is completely controlled by the Ukrainian security and defense forces."

Some background: CNN reported Friday Biden administration officials have privately urged Zelensky not to leave Ukraine to visit Munich given concerns about a possible incursion from Russia, according to three US officials and one senior Ukrainian official.

“That is a decision for him to make, but regardless of what decision he makes, he will find a strong partner in the United States,” said White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki during the briefing when asked if it would be wise for Zelensky to make that trip. 

Some US officials are concerned that if he leaves the country that could open the door for Russia to make false claims that he has fled. While officials had not explicitly asked Zelensky not to make the trip – and have been careful to make clear the decision was his to make – those concerns were communicated, one of the officials said. 

4:15 a.m. ET, February 19, 2022

Separatists in eastern Ukraine order mass evacuation as Ukraine warns of Russian provocation

From CNN's Tim Lister and Tamara Qiblawi in Kyiv and Lviv

Pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine's breakaway regions ordered the evacuation of civilians to Russia Friday, accusing Ukraine of planning a large military offensive against the two self-declared republics.

The restive eastern part of the country has witnessed the worst shelling in years over the last two days.

Each side accuses the other of heavy shelling of civilian areas. Ukrainian authorities say there were 60 breaches of the ceasefire Thursday, many of them by heavy weapons.

The Ukrainian government denies that it is planning any offensive in the east, accusing the separatists of launching a "disinformation campaign."

Authorities in the breakaway states of Donetsk and Luhansk said they were organizing the evacuations. Leonid Pasechnik, the most senior official in the pro-Russian breakaway Luhansk People's Republic, urged men to take up arms.

"The Russian Federation is ready to provide organized reception and accommodation on its territory of residents of the Luhansk People's Republic," said Pasechnik. "Once again, I appeal to all men who are able to hold weapons in their hands, to defend their land."

Ukrainians accuse separatists of staging attack in breakaway city

On Friday, a vehicle explosion in Donetsk was dismissed by Ukrainian and US officials as a staged attack designed to stoke tensions in eastern Ukraine. Video showed a fire in a parking lot and a badly damaged military vehicle, near the headquarters of the self-declared Donetsk People's Republic.

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, adviser to the Ukrainian interior minister, told CNN on WhatsApp.

A US State Department spokesman 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."

US President Joe Biden has said that there has been an uptick in Russian disinformation that could be used as a pretext for an invasion into Ukraine. Speaking at the White House on Friday, Biden said that he was "convinced" Putin has made the decision to invade Ukraine, but added that "diplomacy is always a possibility."

Both the Ukrainian government and western officials have warned of the possibility of provocative actions by Russia and the separatist leadership to provide a pretext for a Russian offensive into Ukraine.

Read more on this story here:

4:07 a.m. ET, February 19, 2022

The Ukraine conflict is moving fast. Here's what to watch for

From CNN's Nathan Hodge and Tim Lister

Tensions in Ukraine are escalating. The country's eastern Donbas region -- where fighting between pro-Russian separatists and Ukrainian forces have simmered since 2015 -- experienced its worst shelling in years this week. And diplomatic efforts to defuse tensions have, so far, failed to reach a conclusion.

Here's some key moments to watch in the ongoing Ukraine crisis.

Ongoing wargames and nuclear drills

Over the past week, Russian President Vladimir Putin has focused international attention onto a series of military drills that have tested Russia's conventional military power. Russia's Ministry of Defense has released flashy footage of live-fire exercises in neighboring Belarus involving tanks, artillery and fighter aircraft, and the wargames have showcased Russia's air defenses and its navy.

On Saturday, Russia is set to test its strategic deterrent: its nuclear forces. The Kremlin announced Friday that Putin is "likely to be in the situation center" during military drills on Saturday, where ballistic and cruise missiles will be launched.

Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov noted that such training exercises are "quite regular," and would involve appropriate international notifications. That's true, up to a point: These readiness exercises are happening against the background of international tensions over Ukraine that could actualize into a major war.

Tensions escalate in Donbas

Tensions in Ukraine reached their highest in years on Friday after pro-Russian separatist leaders in the breakaway republics of Ukraine's Donbas region called on civilians to evacuate -- and after an explosion wrecked a vehicle in the separatist-controlled city of Donetsk, creating more war jitters.

A diplomatic balancing act

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is scheduled to attend the Munich Security Conference on Saturday, despite US President Joe Biden's administration plea to reconsider those plans to leave Ukraine amid concerns about a possible Russian invasion.

Read the full story here:

3:34 a.m. ET, February 19, 2022

Your guide to understanding the Ukraine-Russia crisis

From CNN's Eliza Mackintosh

After months of military buildup and brinkmanship on Ukraine's border, Russia is ratcheting up pressure on its ex-Soviet neighbor, threatening to destabilize Europe and draw in the United States.

Russia has been tightening its military grip around Ukraine since last year, amassing tens of thousands of troops, equipment and artillery on the country's doorstep. The aggression has sparked warnings from US intelligence officials that a Russian invasion could be imminent.

In recent weeks, whirlwind diplomatic efforts to diffuse tensions failed to reach a conclusion.

Moscow has repeatedly denied it is planning an assault, insisting instead that NATO support for Ukraine constitutes a growing threat on Russia's western flank. An escalation in shelling in eastern Ukraine and a vehicle blast in separatist-held Donbas has heightened fears that Moscow could be stoking the violence to justify an invasion.

The escalation in the years-long conflict between Russia and Ukraine has triggered the greatest security crisis on the continent since the Cold War, raising the specter of a dangerous showdown between Western powers and Moscow.

So how did we get here? The picture on the ground is shifting rapidly, but here's a breakdown of what we know.

What has set the stage for the conflict?

Ukraine was a cornerstone of the Soviet Union until it voted overwhelmingly for independence in 1991, a milestone that turned out to be a death knell for the failing superpower.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, NATO pushed eastward, bringing into the fold most of the Eastern European nations that had been in the Communist orbit. In 2004, NATO added the former Soviet Baltic republics Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Four years later, it declared its intention to offer membership to Ukraine some day in the distant future -- crossing a red line for Russia.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has indicated he sees NATO's expansion as an existential threat, and the prospect of Ukraine joining the Western military alliance a "hostile act." In interviews and speeches, he has emphasized his view that Ukraine is part of Russia, culturally, linguistically and politically. While some of the mostly Russian-speaking population in Ukraine's east feel the same, a more nationalist, Ukrainian-speaking population in the west has historically supported greater integration with Europe. In an article penned in July 2021, Putin underlined their shared history, describing Russians and Ukrainians as "one people."

Ukrainians, who in the last three decades have sought to align more closely with Western institutions, like the European Union and NATO, have pushed back against that notion. In early 2014, mass protests in the capital Kyiv forced out a Russia-friendly president after he refused to sign an EU association agreement.

Russia responded by annexing the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea and fomenting a separatist rebellion in Ukraine's east, which seized control of part of the Donbas region. Despite a ceasefire agreement in 2015, the two sides have not seen a stable peace, and the front line has barely moved since. Nearly 14,000 people have died in the conflict, and there are 1.5 million people internally displaced in Ukraine, according to the Ukrainian government.

Read more here.