The latest on the Ukraine-Russia crisis

By Lauren Said-Moorhouse, Sana Noor Haq, Jeevan Ravindran, Fernando Alfonso III, Amir Vera, Helen Regan and Brad Lendon, CNN

Updated 12:02 a.m. ET, February 21, 2022
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4:06 a.m. ET, February 20, 2022

Ukrainian soldiers "ready for any scenario" as mortar shells explode near front line, interior minister says

From CNN's Tim Lister in Kyiv and Katharina Krebs in Novoluhanske and Kramatorsk

Ukraine's Interior Minister Denys Monastyrskiy, left, visits soldiers at a front line position in Novoluhanske, Ukraine, on February 19.
Ukraine's Interior Minister Denys Monastyrskiy, left, visits soldiers at a front line position in Novoluhanske, Ukraine, on February 19. (Timothy Fadek/Redux for CNN)

A CNN team and other journalists accompanying Ukraine’s interior minister on a tour of the front lines in eastern Ukraine came under mortar fire Saturday.

No one was injured.

Interior Minister Denys Monastyrskiy sought cover as several mortar rounds landed nearby. Shortly after the shelling, he gave interviews to international media in Novoluhanske. 

About a dozen mortar rounds landed within a few hundred meters of the group.

Speaking to CNN prior to leaving the area, Monastyrskiy said, “We spoke with soldiers on the ground. The spirit is incredibly brave and all guys are ready for any scenario.”

He said that it had been his first time under fire. He told reporters that he was in the car en route and they had to stop every time they heard shelling and lay on the ground.

At a news conference later in Kramatorsk, Monastyrskiy was asked by CNN what role Ukraine believed that Russian military advisers were playing in the fighting in the eastern part of the country. 

"We have information about the advance of the Russian army along our territory," he said. "There is also information that certain units of the Wagner PMC have entered our territory. The purpose of the stay is to organize sabotage in our territory."

Some background: Wagner is a private Russian paramilitary force that has long been associated with the separatists in eastern Ukraine and has also deployed to Libya, Syria and the Central African Republic, among other countries.

The Russian government denies any connection with Wagner or other private military contractors.

Over the past few days, the Ukrainian armed forces have reported a surge in heavy weapons fire against Ukrainian positions along what is known as the line of contact.  

The Ukrainian Ministry of Defense said that through 17:00 local time (10 a.m. ET) Saturday, "70 violations of the ceasefire regime were recorded by the Russian occupation forces, 60 of which by using weapons prohibited by the Minsk agreements."

The ministry also said that two Ukrainian serviceman were killed and four wounded on Saturday.

The Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov repeated in a Facebook post Saturday that Ukraine had no plans to launch an offensive against the breakaway regions, as claimed by the leaders of the self-declared Luhansk and Donetsk republics. 

"We do not plan any offensives, but we will not allow the firing on the positions of our troops and human settlements with impunity," Reznikov said.

3:44 a.m. ET, February 20, 2022

EU condemns use of "heavy weaponry and indiscriminate shelling of civilian areas" in eastern Ukraine

From CNN’s James Frater and Tim Lister

The European Union has urged Russia to de-escalate by substantially withdrawing military forces from near its border with Ukraine and highlighted the “increase in ceasefire violations” along the Line of Contact in eastern Ukraine in recent days.

“The EU condemns the use of heavy weaponry and indiscriminate shelling of civilian areas, which constitute a clear violation of the Minsk agreements and international humanitarian law,” read the statement from the EU’s high representative on Saturday.

The EU statement went on to commend Ukraine’s “posture of restraint in the face of continued provocations and efforts at destabilization.” And it expressed concern at “staged events” that it said could be used as a “pretext for a possible military escalation.”

The statement from the bloc comes after Ukrainian officials raised concerns about expected “provocations” in breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine, saying they expect Russia to be involved in so-called false-flag operations there.

On Friday, Oleksiy Danilov, secretary of Ukraine's National Security and Defense Council, said the self-declared republics of Donetsk and Luhansk had alleged Ukrainian forces would launch an offensive against them – which Danilov called “completely untrue.” Danilov was speaking soon after an explosion in Donetsk wrecked a vehicle close to the DPR headquarters. The cause of the blast was unclear.

"There is a great danger that the representatives of the Russian Federation who are there will provoke certain things. They can do things that have nothing to do with our military," he said, and without providing evidence, added, "We can't say what exactly they are going to do -- whether to blow up buses with people who are planned to be evacuated to the Rostov region, or to blow up houses -- we don't know."

Also on Friday, the German and French Foreign Ministers said they did not see “any grounds” for the claim from separatist leaders against Ukrainian forces, warning that “staged incidents could be misused as a pretext for possible military escalation."

The EU also said it was witnessing intensified “information manipulation efforts” and expressed support for the OSCE’s Special Monitoring Mission, calling for the mission to be allowed to carry out its mandate without any restrictions. 

“The EU sees no grounds for allegations coming from the non-governmental controlled areas of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of a possible Ukrainian attack. The EU urges Russia to engage in meaningful dialogue, diplomacy, show restraint and de-escalate.”

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.  

3:28 a.m. ET, February 20, 2022

A split-screen moment for the Ukraine crisis, with hard and soft power on display

Analysis by CNN's Nathan Hodge

The Ukraine crisis had a split-screen moment on Saturday, as the Kremlin put on a display of hard power and the Ukrainian president staged a charm offensive.

Russian President Vladimir Putin led headlines first, as he oversaw a major test of the readiness of Russia's nuclear triad: The land-, sea- and air-based components of his strategic deterrent.

In other words, the Kremlin leader got to brandish his nukes. The drills were a classic key-turning exercise: The Russians rehearsed the scenarios for ordering the launch of a nuclear strike, with crews launching intercontinental ballistic missiles, bombers dropping cruise missiles and a submarine firing a ballistic missile.

It's meant to impress. Nuclear deterrence involves an element of theater, and Putin played the role to the hilt, watching the big screen inside the Kremlin situation room alongside his ally and close partner, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko.

Russia's nuclear drills, in some respects, were the icing on the cake of massive military drills that have taken place over the past nine days. The Kremlin has presented those exercises -- in Belarus, on the Black Sea and in other parts of the Russian Federation -- as a major test for Russia's conventional armed forces.

But the Biden administration and its NATO allies believe, with high confidence, that those exercises are a smokescreen for positioning troops to invade Ukraine.

The United States estimates Russia now has 169,000-190,000 personnel in and around Ukraine, including Russian-led separatist forces inside the Donbas region of Ukraine. But despite a warning from President Joe Biden that Putin has made up his mind to invade Russia's neighbor, Ukrainian President Voldymyr Zelensky left his country to attend the Munich Security Conference on Saturday.

Read the full story here:

3:27 a.m. ET, February 20, 2022

Sunday catch-up

Good morning and welcome to our live coverage of Ukraine-Russia crisis.

Several world leaders met at the Munich Security conference in Germany Saturday. The conference is taking place as the brewing conflict between Russia and Ukraine threatens to boil over and diplomatic efforts stall.

Here are some of the latest headlines overnight to bring you up to speed:

  • US President Joe Biden is being regularly updated on Ukraine and will convene the National Security Council in the White House Situation Room on Sunday, according to an administration official.
  • Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky said Saturday sanctions on Russia should be made public before a possible invasion of Ukraine occurs.
  • US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said earlier Saturday Russia was "moving into the right positions to conduct an attack" while Vice President Kamala Harris vowed a "swift, severe and united" response if Russia did invade.
  • Meanwhile, President Putin was joined by his Belarusian counterpart Alexander Lukashenko Saturday as he launched Russia's ballistic and cruise missile exercises.