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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8:09 p.m. ET, February 20, 2022

Ukrainian military alleges separatists in the east fired on their own territory to 'falsely accuse' Ukraine

From CNN's Tim Lister

The Ukrainian Joint Forces Command has alleged that Russian-backed separatists launched "'heavy armament fire' against their own territory in an effort to 'falsely accuse' the armed forces of Ukraine and further escalate the situation."

It said the barrage began at 9 p.m. local time Sunday and involved firing from Lobacheve toward the city of Luhansk. Both places are within the self-declared Luhansk People's Republic (LPR) in eastern Ukraine.

"With Ukrainian defenders refraining from any aggressive acts that could possibly trigger a violent response, the occupation forces continue to destroy civilian infrastructure on the temporarily occupied territories and sporadically shell civilian settlements," the command said.

"By doing so, the occupation forces once again demonstrated their cowardice and complete disregard for the lives and health of the local civilian population."

For its part, the LPR alleged that Ukrainian forces were "firing artillery into the territory of the LPR along the entire line of contact, presumably they are preparing to attack."

Ivan Filiponenko, an LPR official, said, "All along the line of contact, the enemy undertook preparations for an intended offensive." 

The separatists have accused Ukraine of preparing for an offensive against the two self-declared republics, an accusation that has been denied by Ukraine.

On Saturday, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said it deplored "the spreading of disinformation about an imminent military action by the Ukrainian government forces."

4:50 p.m. ET, February 20, 2022

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and French President Emmanuel Macron speak about situation in Ukraine

From CNN’s Lauren Kent in London and Mitchell McCluskey in Atlanta

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks during the 2022 Munich Security Conference on February 19, in Munich, Germany.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks during the 2022 Munich Security Conference on February 19, in Munich, Germany. (Matt Dunham/Pool/Getty Images)

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and French President Emmanuel Macron spoke about the situation in Ukraine on Sunday, according to readouts from the United Kingdom and France.

In a readout of the call, the Élysée Palace said the two leaders updated one another on their diplomatic efforts involving Ukraine, including Macron’s call with Russian President Vladimir Putin, where France said the leaders agreed to hold trilateral talks to reach a ceasefire.

“The Prime Minister noted that President Putin’s commitments to President Macron were a welcome sign that he might still be willing to engage in finding a diplomatic solution. The Prime Minister stressed that Ukraine’s voice must be central in any discussions," a Downing Street spokesperson said in a statement.

“The leaders agreed on the need for both Russia and Ukraine to meet their commitments under the Minsk Agreements in full. They also underscored the need for President Putin to step back from his current threats and withdraw troops from Ukraine’s border,” the Downing Street statement said.

Johnson and Macron agreed to stay in close contact over the next week.

4:20 p.m. ET, February 20, 2022

New intel adds to US fears that Russia is readying for military action

From CNN's Jim Sciutto in Lviv, Ukraine, and Natasha Bertrand in Munich

A Ukrainian serviceman stands in a shelter on a position at the line of separation between Ukraine-held territory and rebel-held territory near Zolote, Ukraine, Saturday, Feb. 19.
A Ukrainian serviceman stands in a shelter on a position at the line of separation between Ukraine-held territory and rebel-held territory near Zolote, Ukraine, Saturday, Feb. 19. (Evgeniy Maloletka/AP)

The US has intelligence indicating orders have been sent to Russian commanders to proceed with an attack on Ukraine, according to two US officials and another source familiar with the US intelligence. 

The intelligence regarding the order to tactical commanders and intelligence operatives is one of several indicators the US is watching to assess if Russian preparations have entered their final stages for a potential invasion. 

Other indicators, such as electronic jamming and widespread cyber-attacks, have not yet been observed, according to some of the sources. The sources cautioned that orders can always be withdrawn or that it could be misinformation meant to confuse and mislead the US and allies.

But the news of the intelligence comes after President Biden said on Friday that he believes Putin has made a decision to invade — a comment echoed by Vice President Kamala Harris and by Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Sunday. Blinken said the Russian playbook is “moving forward.”

“We believe President Putin has made the decision,” Blinken said Sunday in an interview on CNN. “But until the tanks are actually rolling and the planes are flying, we will use every opportunity and every minute we have to see if diplomacy can still dissuade President Putin from carrying this forward.”

The Washington Post first reported on the orders being given.

CNN's Katie Bo Lillis contributed to this report

2:40 p.m. ET, February 20, 2022

Biden and Macron expected to speak soon

From CNN’s Kevin Liptak

President Joe Biden delivers a national update on the situation at the Russia-Ukraine border at the White House in Washington, DC, February 18.
President Joe Biden delivers a national update on the situation at the Russia-Ukraine border at the White House in Washington, DC, February 18. (Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images)

President Joe Biden is expected to speak Sunday with his French counterpart Emmanuel Macron following Macron’s back-to-back phone calls with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelensky, a source familiar said.

The exact timing of the conversation wasn’t clear. 

Macron is working to find a diplomatic path to avoid conflict, as reflected in the Élysée readouts of his calls today. 

Biden's Sunday National Security meeting regarding Ukraine has ended, per a White House official. The meeting began at 11:30 a.m., a White House official told CNN.

Some more context: French President Emmanuel Macron and Putin agreed on Sunday on “working intensively to enable a meeting of the Trilateral Contact Group to be held in the next few hours,” the Élysée Palace said in a readout of the call on Sunday.

The Élysée readout said the aim of the meeting would be to “obtain a commitment from all parties to a ceasefire on the line of contact.” 

The Trilateral Contact Group includes representatives from Ukraine, the Russian Federation, and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).

Per the statement, the two leaders agreed on the need to “give priority to a diplomatic solution to the current crisis and to do everything possible to achieve it.”

1:23 p.m. ET, February 20, 2022

Evacuees from separatist-held eastern Ukraine continue to cross into Russia by foot, by car 

From CNN’s Uliana Pavlova in Rostov

Evacuees from separatist-controlled parts of eastern Ukraine continued to cross into Russia through a border checkpoint Sunday, entering the southern Rostov region by car, bus and by foot, a CNN reporter on the ground observed.  

At the Avila-Uspenka border checkpoint in the Rostov region, residents leaving Donbas were greeted by representatives of Russia’s Emergency Services Ministry and members of a pro-Putin youth group in a makeshift camp.  

The traffic coming out of Donetsk was moderate with families driving in cars with Donetsk People's Republic license plates and occasional groups of evacuees trickling in small groups of two to four people, mostly families with young children.

One evacuee from the city of Donetsk told CNN that her family evacuated on short notice after hearing shellfire early Sunday morning. 

“Everything happened spontaneously, we heard sounds of shelling around 1:00 a.m., I grabbed my baby and ran,” Irina, 35, told CNN near the checkpoint border crossing, after getting driven to the checkpoint and then crossing by foot with her 5-year old son, Danil. Irina declined to give her last name to CNN out of safety concerns. 

The local Russian emergency services set up makeshift cafeterias, toilets and showers, along with two rows of inflatable makeshift tents inside which some evacuees slept on bunk beds while waiting to be taken to other accommodation.  

Meanwhile, rows of empty buses waited to take the evacuees camps and sanatoriums in the nearby port city of Taganrog. 

“We left voluntarily, no one is making us leave and some people choose to stay,” said Viktor Ivanovich, 63, who gave only his first name and patronymic. He crossed the border with his wife in their car.  

When asked whether they were given instructions on when they might be able to come back, the couple said no.   

Local officials in the Rostov region have declared a state of emergency after separatist leaders on Friday ordered the evacuation of civilians from the region.

11:20 a.m. ET, February 20, 2022

Macron and Putin agree on trilateral talks "in next hours," Élysée Palace says

From CNN’s Martin Goillandeau

French President Emmanuel Macron and Russia's Vladimir Putin agreed on Sunday on “working intensively to enable a meeting of the Trilateral Contact Group to be held in the next few hours,” the Élysée Palace said in a readout of the call on Sunday.

The Élysée readout said the aim of the meeting would be to “obtain a commitment from all parties to a ceasefire on the line of contact.” 

The Trilateral Contact Group includes representatives from Ukraine, the Russian Federation, and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).

Per the statement, the two leaders agreed on the need to “give priority to a diplomatic solution to the current crisis and to do everything possible to achieve it.”

The French presidency said that “intense diplomatic work” would be carried out “in the coming days and weeks,” with French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian and his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov to meet soon.

The two leaders “noted differences in interpretation of the reasons for the deadlock” in the negotiations over the Ukraine crisis, an Elysee source said.

“Mr. Putin blames the impasse in negotiations on Ukraine, whereas the president of the Republic reminded him that Ukraine would not negotiate with separatists directly,” the source added.

The Élysée Palace said that diplomatic work “should make it possible to progress on the basis of the latest exchanges by associating all stakeholders,” in order to reach “a meeting at the highest level with a view to defining a new peace and security order in Europe.”

It added that Macron and Putin had made “firm commitments to take all useful actions to avoid escalation, reduce risks and preserve peace” to carry out this work “under serious conditions.”

11:04 a.m. ET, February 20, 2022

Pentagon press secretary says "we still think there's time to prevent" a Russian invasion of Ukraine

From CNN's Sarah Fortinsky

Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby holds a news briefing at the Pentagon on February 14, in Arlington, Virginia.
Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby holds a news briefing at the Pentagon on February 14, in Arlington, Virginia. (Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)

Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby doubled down on the Biden administration's strategy of using the threat of sanctions as a deterrent and rejected increased calls for imposing pre-invasion sanctions, saying, "[Russian President Vladimir Putin] has not conducted another invasion in Ukraine yet, and we still think there's time to prevent that."

"It's supposed to be a deterrent. If you punish somebody for something they haven't done yet, then they might as well just go ahead and do it," Kirby added. "And we're hoping that that could affect the calculous of Mr. Putin."

Kirby said on Fox News Sunday that Putin still has many options on the table if he chooses to take a diplomatic off-ramp to the tensions, saying, "We have made serious proposals and talked about changing, for instance, the scope and scale of some of our exercises in Europe, being willing to talk about offensive missile capabilities in Europe. We have certainly put forward other proposals to try to convince Mr. Putin that we're serious."

Kirby made clear the issue of Ukraine's membership in NATO, however, is "an issue for Ukraine and for NATO. That is not something that Mr. Putin can simply institute a veto over or decide for himself, that kind of thing is again between the alliance and Ukraine."

Some context: Kirby would not address individual claims made by Putin, but he characterized them as "outrageous claims" and said, on the whole, "these are just not credible."

He said that Putin is "playing the victim," which he said is exactly out of the "Russian playbook."

"It is absolutely right out of the Russian playbook. He may be moving Xs and Os around the field right now militarily, but it seems like he's using the same old playbook," Kirby said, adding, "And I don't want to make light of this analogy. This isn't a football game. This is potentially war and lives are at stake here." 

11:26 a.m. ET, February 20, 2022

Roughly 75% of Russian conventional forces deployed against Ukraine, US official says

From CNN's Jim Sciutto

Russian and Belarusian troops take part in joint military drills in the Brest, Belarus, on February 19.
Russian and Belarusian troops take part in joint military drills in the Brest, Belarus, on February 19. (Peter Kovalev/TASS/Getty Images)

According to the latest US intelligence assessment, Russia now has close to 75% of its conventional forces postured against Ukraine, a US official with direct knowledge of the intelligence told CNN. 

The concentration of forces within striking distance of Ukraine is highly unusual and part of the reason the US believes Russia is ready to attack, the official said.

This includes some 120 of Russia's total estimated 160 Battalion Tactical Groups or BTGs which are positioned within 60km of Ukraine, according to the official. While that figure represents 75% of Russia’s principal combat units, it is less than half of the total troops in the Russian military.

US officials have reported that Russian troops combined with separatist forces could be as high as 190,000 deployed around Ukraine.

Some 35 of 50 known air defense battalions are deployed against Ukraine. In addition, the US estimates some 500 fighter and fighter-bomber aircraft are within range of Ukraine, as well as 50 medium to heavy bombers.

Together, the Russian forces now vastly outnumber Ukrainian military forces, according to the assessment. 

To note: CNN cannot independently verify the intelligence.

On Thursday, the British Ministry of Defense tweeted an assessment that said, “Russia has over half of its ground combat power near the Ukrainian border.”

11:00 a.m. ET, February 20, 2022

Finland's president sees current situation "colder" than during Cold War

From CNN's Chandelis Duster

Finland's President Sauli Niinistö speaks during the UN Climate Change Conference November 2, 2021, in Glasgow, Scotland.
Finland's President Sauli Niinistö speaks during the UN Climate Change Conference November 2, 2021, in Glasgow, Scotland. (Hannah McKay/Pool/Getty Images)

President Sauli Niinistö of Finland told CNN Sunday that the world is “almost in a colder situation” than the actual Cold War era as tensions between the US and Moscow have reached a boiling point amid fears Russia will invade Ukraine.

“Then, we had at least some agreements between the United States and Soviet Union, limiting arms and so on,” he told CNN.” “Now we do not have actually anything, no agreements anymore. So, this makes the situation, in my opinion, much more vulnerable.”

President Biden has said he is convinced Russian President Vladimir Putin has decided to invade Ukraine, with his secretary of state, Antony Blinken, telling CNN on Sunday that the “playbook” for invasion is moving forward.

Recent shelling in eastern Ukraine and a vehicle blast in separatist-held Donbas has raised fears that Putin could be inciting violence to justify an invasion.

When asked if he thought an invasion would happen, Niinistö told CNN there were three possibilities.

“First one is that somehow they could settle the issue of eastern Ukraine, Minsk agreement and all that. I think it's far away. Then second option is that we will see a full-scale war,” he said. “And the third one, which is as bad, is that we see this kind of, like I described, two steps forward, one back, that is increasing tensions all the time. And the third one might at the moment, I would say, that might be the nearest one at least.”