US and Ukraine at odds over threat of Russian invasion

By Eliza Mackintosh, Ed Upright, Meg Wagner, Melissa Macaya, Aditi Sangal and Adrienne Vogt, CNN

Updated 5:45 p.m. ET, January 28, 2022
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8:38 a.m. ET, January 28, 2022

Russia says it doesn't want war and signals opening for diplomacy in Ukraine crisis

From CNN's Eliza Mackintosh and Vasco Cotovio

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov speaks to the media after addressing the State Duma, the Lower House of the Russian Parliament in Moscow, Russia, on January 26.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov speaks to the media after addressing the State Duma, the Lower House of the Russian Parliament in Moscow, Russia, on January 26. (Russian Foreign Ministry Press Service/AP)

In spite of the ratcheting warnings of impending war in Ukraine, the Kremlin has signaled that diplomatic discussions between Russia and the West will press on -- at least for now.

Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov reiterated on Friday that Moscow did not want war with Ukraine, cooling talk of conflict a day after US President Joe Biden said that Russia could be poised to invade Ukraine in February.

“If it is up to the Russian Federation, there will be no war. We don't want a war,” Lavrov said.

In an interview with Russian radio stations, Lavrov said that the United States' response to Russian security demands contained "some grains of reason," a small ray of hope that diplomatic compromise could be reached on outstanding issues, such as military exercises.

But the Kremlin has indicated that a wider agreement is unlikely, given that one of Russia's primary demands -- a halt to NATO expansion -- has been kept firmly off the table. Lavrov added that the NATO response was "full of itself" and that if the alliance's position, which he said was "based on false arguments," remained unchanged, he saw little room for an accord.

On Wednesday, the US and NATO delivered their written responses to an array of demands for security guarantees that Russia laid out in December. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the US response to Russia "sets out a serious diplomatic path forward should Russia choose it."

In response, Lavrov and Russian President Vladimir Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said that there were "few reasons for optimism," but that Putin was reviewing the documents and would not rush to any conclusions. Putin has remained silent on his military maneuvers, but Russian officials have repeatedly denied any intention to invade Ukraine, while arguing that NATO support for the country constitutes a growing threat on Russia's western flank.

Lavrov said Friday that he expected to have a follow-up discussion with Blinken in the coming weeks to discuss the proposals.

Some background: High-level talks between the West and Russia wrapped earlier this month without any breakthroughs, leaving prospects of de-escalation and future diplomacy in doubt. The US and its NATO allies had hoped the talks could spur Russia to pursue a path of "de-escalation and diplomacy," but Russian officials were incensed over the US and NATO's refusal to entertain a contentious list of security demands. The demands include a ban on Ukraine entering NATO and that the alliance roll back its expansion in Eastern Europe -- proposals that the US and its NATO allies have repeatedly said are non-starters.
8:31 a.m. ET, January 28, 2022

US ambassador to Moscow: Russia says it doesn't want to invade, but facts on the ground tell different story

From CNN’s Vasco Cotovio

United States Ambassador to Moscow John Sullivan says despite repeated public assurances from Russian officials that they do not want to further invade Ukraine, “the facts on the ground tell a much different story.”

Sullivan called the Russian build-up of troops – more than 100,000 – at the Ukrainian border as “extraordinary,” which give Moscow the ability to “further invade Ukraine, with no notice, with no forewarning.”

“It can't be explained as an ordinary military exercise or exercises. And it is it is destabilizing,” Sullivan said. “I understand what the Russian government has said publicly, that it has no intention to invade Ukraine, but the facts on the ground tell a much different story.”

“President Biden himself has said that the facts show that Russia is in a position to unleash a further invasion of Ukraine,” he added.

The ambassador said the US assessment of the threat of a Russian invasion remains “real” and “imminent.”

“I've said, and I want to emphasize again, the threat is very real, and it's imminent,” Sullivan told journalists during a briefing on Friday. “As President Biden said it could happen, given the build-up that we've seen, with very little notice.”

Meanwhile: In spite of the ratcheting warnings of impending war in Ukraine, the Kremlin has signaled that diplomatic discussions between Russia and the West will press on — at least for now. Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov reiterated on Friday that Moscow did not want war with Ukraine.

7:59 a.m. ET, January 28, 2022

How close are we to all-out conflict? Here's what we know so far

From CNN's Laura Smith-Spark

How imminent is the threat of a full-scale war on the Ukrainian border? It's the question on many minds. While diplomatic efforts to defuse the crisis are ramping up, the Russian troop buildup also continues, according to the Pentagon.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky's position is that the threat from Russia remains "dangerous but ambiguous," and it is not certain that an attack will take place, a senior Ukrainian official told CNN.

But US President Joe Biden told Zelensky on a call Thursday that there was a distinct possibility Russia could launch an invasion in February, according to National Security Council Spokesperson Emily Horne.

Taking that into account, here's a look at how soon an incursion could happen:

Analysts say Russia has a menu of options to attack at any moment it chooses, from shock-and-awe style air strikes to a ground invasion along a broad front. But while it has moved large amounts of military equipment into place in areas bordering Ukraine, not all the personnel needed for a ground operation are ready.

"At the moment, Russia has a lot of equipment pre-positioned along with its own border with Ukraine," said Janes, a global agency for open-source defense intelligence. "(This) reduces the amount of time it requires for them to fill that area with more forces if they decide to fight because all of their heavy equipment's there."

Troops can be deployed in less than 72 hours, the agency said, since they need only be sent from their bases by plane or train across the country.

Russia is also in the process of deploying "quite a sizable formation" in Belarus from its Eastern Military District (EMD), which extends from Russia's Pacific Coast to Siberia, Janes said. This formation, which Janes first detected moving west early this month, appears to include troops, logistics and communications resources as well as military equipment.

Russia has said the force is there for a Russian-Belarusian training exercise. But according to Janes, the troops "are essentially deploying as close to ready to go as you can be."

Judging by what has been pre-positioned on Russian soil near Ukraine's border, it considers Russia would require "maybe a maximum of two weeks of intense movement to bring all of the pieces into position" if it were to launch an invasion.

Whether Russia would want to put large numbers of boots on the ground remains unclear, particularly given the risk of casualties.

"The important thing to realize is that (Russia) is quite wary of what it calls contact warfare," that is, forces fighting each on the ground, said Sam Cranny-Evans, a research analyst with the UK-based Royal United Services Institute (RUSI).

"We've seen (this) in Chechnya, in Afghanistan, in Georgia and its covert deployments to Ukraine, that military losses actually do generate political pressure."

Russia could instead opt to use its very long-range intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets to target critical national infrastructure within Ukraine, such as military bases or even power plants and bridges, Cranny-Evans said. "The goal is to either stop a contact conflict from emerging or shape the battlefield so that when one does emerge, it's much more favorable to the Russian forces," he said.

US intelligence findings in December estimated that Russia could begin a military offensive in Ukraine "as soon as early 2022." Since then, US officials have stuck to that line.

"In terms of timelines, what we've seen up until now has been very overt signaling of the intention for the ability to invade Ukraine," said Cranny-Evans. But the Russians are "taking their time" to get the final pieces into place in order to leave space for conversations which might allow them to achieve their political goals, such as installing a pro-Kremlin or even neutral leader in Kiev, without having to fight, he suggested.

If it does come to an invasion, he considers that Russia could move the necessary troops into place in the space of 72 hours. "It's the forces that Russia already has in the Southern Military District on the borders with Ukraine that would probably take on the first bit of fighting," Cranny-Evans said.

The Kremlin denies it is planning to attack and argues that it is NATO's support for Ukraine -- including increased weapons supplies and military training -- that constitutes a growing threat on Russia's western flank.

Read the full story -- which also looks at what a potential invasion might look like -- here:

7:36 a.m. ET, January 28, 2022

Pentagon warns of Russian troop build-up, as diplomatic efforts intensify

From CNN's Eliza Mackintosh and Michael Conte

A satellite image shows Russian battle groups and vehicles parked in Yelnya, Russia on January 19.
A satellite image shows Russian battle groups and vehicles parked in Yelnya, Russia on January 19. (Maxar Technologies/Reuters)

Diplomatic efforts to defuse the military crisis in Eastern Europe were forging ahead on Friday, even as the Pentagon cautioned that Russia was sending more of its troops to the Ukrainian border, and US President Joe Biden reaffirmed America's readiness to "respond decisively" in the case of an invasion.

Russia has built a formidable force near its border with Ukraine, massing tens of thousands of troops and heavy weapons, and establishing new bases in the region since last year. With Russian forces now stationed in Belarus for joint exercises, Ukraine is surrounded on three sides.

On Thursday, the Pentagon, which has put 8,500 US troops on high alert to deploy to Eastern Europe, said that Russia was continuing to ramp up its military presence.

“We continue to see, including in the last 24 hours, more accumulation of credible combat forces arrayed by the Russians in, again, the western part of their country and in Belarus. So without getting into a tick-tock every day of how much more we’re seeing, we continue to see them add to that capability,” said Pentagon press secretary John Kirby.

Kirby said the buildup has been “not dramatic,” but “also not sclerotic.” 

Also on Thursday, the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank released open source satellite imagery and analysis on the Russian build-up in Ukraine, which tallied with other assessments indicating a significant and sizeable presence of Russian ground troops, tanks, small arms and mobile artillery. "If peace talks fail, an escalation between the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and Russia could extend well beyond Eastern Europe and include retaliatory measures that are global in nature," the authors of the report warned.

The build-up of Russian forces has raised fears among Western and Ukrainian officials that the Kremlin could launch a military operation imminently. Biden, in a call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Thursday, suggested that Russian forces could invade as soon as February, the White House National Security Council spokesperson Emily Horne told CNN. In response, Zelensky restated his position that the threat from Russia remains "dangerous but ambiguous," and it is not certain that an attack will take place, a senior Ukrainian official told CNN.

For background: Zelensky and his government have repeatedly downplayed the danger of a Russian invasion, noting that the threat has existed for years and has not become greater in recent months. The conflict between Ukraine and Russia has been rumbling since 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea and fomented a rebellion in Ukraine's east. Despite a cease fire in 2015, the two sides have not seen a stable peace.

6:27 a.m. ET, January 28, 2022

New discord between Ukraine and US plays right into Putin's hands

Analysis from CNN's Stephen Collinson

New signs of a fracture between the US and Ukraine over the imminence of a possible Russian invasion could seriously undermine President Joe Biden's muscular front against Vladimir Putin in their escalating standoff.

Frustration in Kyiv has mounted in recent days over escalating US rhetoric on the crisis, even as Moscow pours more troops into positions near the Ukrainian border. Washington and its allies have been waging an unusually open and vocal public relations warfare campaign -- an approach that primarily appears rooted in genuine fears of a major conflagration in Ukraine.

But there are clear signs that the strategy is also designed to pile pressure on Putin and to sharpen his strategic dilemma while compelling US allies in Europe into taking tougher stands. It may offer political cover to Biden by showing that he was not caught off guard if Russia does invade. The strategy also shields a President, who is wobbling at home, from attacks by Republican hawks keen to portray him as a weak appeaser ahead of midterm elections.

Read the full analysis here:

7:42 a.m. ET, January 28, 2022

Russian gas shutdown would be "catastrophic" for Europe

Analysis from CNN Business' Julia Horowitz

View of pipe systems and shut-off devices at the gas receiving station of the Nord Stream 2 Baltic Sea pipeline at Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, Germany, on January 7.
View of pipe systems and shut-off devices at the gas receiving station of the Nord Stream 2 Baltic Sea pipeline at Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, Germany, on January 7. (Stefan Sauer/picture alliance/Getty Images)

The United States and its allies are racing to draw up contingency plans in case supplies of Russian gas crucial to powering businesses and heating homes in Europe are choked off by conflict in Ukraine.

Europe would struggle to survive for long without Russian gas, and finding alternative sources presents a huge logistical challenge -- a reality that's stoking concerns about the continent's access to energy during an already difficult winter.

"There's not really a quick and easy alternative," said Janis Kluge, an expert on Eastern Europe at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs.

Senior White House officials told reporters this week they are talking to countries and companies about ramping up output. They're also trying to identify alternative sources of natural gas that could be rerouted to Europe.

Yet executing such a large intervention in energy markets would be tricky. New pipelines and gas liquefaction facilities take years to build. And redirecting large volumes of the fossil fuel at a time when the global market and transport networks are already stretched would require cooperation from major gas exporters like Qatar, which may not have much wiggle room.

Read the full story here:

6:32 a.m. ET, January 28, 2022

What you need to know about the Russia-Ukraine crisis today

From CNN's Eliza Mackintosh

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy speaks with U.S. President Joe Biden over the telephone in his office in Kyiv, Ukraine, on Friday.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy speaks with U.S. President Joe Biden over the telephone in his office in Kyiv, Ukraine, on Friday. (Ukrainian Presidential Press Office/AP)

The Biden administration is taking the reins in the tense standoff between Russia and Ukraine, coordinating the response to Moscow’s threatening maneuvers in Eastern Europe alongside his European Union counterparts with all the urgency of a Cold War-era crisis.

In the latest sign of that urgency, US President Joe Biden held a “long and frank” phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Thursday, trying to impress upon him the imminent possibility of a Russian invasion. The call came as the Pentagon warned that Russia had ramped up its military presence on the Ukrainian border rapidly in just 24 hours.

Biden told Zelensky that the US and its allies would “respond decisively if Russia further invades Ukraine,” according to a White House statement, though he did not make clear how. A senior Ukrainian official told CNN that, amid disagreements over the “risk levels” of an attack by Russia, which has amassed more than 100,000 troops along Ukraine’s border, the call “did not go well." The White House, however, has disputed that account.

Western officials are continuing to push for a diplomatic solution to the tensions, with Biden emerging as the leader in efforts to counter threats from Russian President Vladimir Putin to Ukraine and NATO.

On Wednesday, the US and NATO submitted separate written responses to Russia's publicly aired concerns, an overture that Moscow had requested. The Russians, who are demanding that the West promise Ukraine will never join NATO, delivered a muted reaction to the US responses on Thursday, saying there were "few reasons for optimism, but would refrain from conceptual assessments," casting a cloud over the future of negotiations.

The US is not only leaning on diplomatic efforts, having put 8,500 troops on notice for deployment to Eastern Europe, sending weapons to Ukraine, and threatening to halt the opening of Nord Stream 2, a key pipeline that would send Russian gas to Western Europe.

Here's what else you need to know today:

  • Speaking to Russian journalists this morning about the US and NATO's written responses to Moscow's request for security guarantees, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said that the American response was "a gold standard of diplomatic courtesy," while the response from NATO was "full of itself."
  • In his annual address to the nation, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko said that the country must "equip its army" for potential war. Russian troops have been pouring into neighboring Belarus for joint-military exercises, "to cover our shout and borders," Lukashenko said. Ukrainian officials fear they will serve as a "full-fledged theater of operations" from which to launch an attack.
  • French President Emmanuel Macron and Putin are due to speak via telephone to discuss tensions over Ukraine. 
  • NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg will take part in an online event on the response of the Western military alliance to tensions in Europe.
  • Ukrainian President Zelensky is scheduled to address foreign media later on.