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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12:07 p.m. ET, January 28, 2022

Ukraine president says he's ready to meet with Putin

From CNN’s Vasco Cotovio

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said he is ready to meet with his Russian counterpart, President Vladimir Putin, but noted that a conversation between the two would have to be "serious." 

“I'm not afraid of any format of the meeting bilateral, OK, I don't care, I'm ready,” Zelensky said in news conference with foreign journalists on Friday. “I mean, it has to be serious. People don't understand the value of the human life and that's what it's about. I do support serious dialogue.”

Tensions between Ukraine and Russia are at their highest in years, with a buildup of Russian troops continuing near the border between the two countries.

Zelensky said earlier to journalists that he recognized the threat from Russia was “imminent” and “constant,” but added that his country as learned to live with it

11:41 a.m. ET, January 28, 2022

Western leaders' messaging on potential Russian invasion is damaging Ukraine's economy, Zelensky says

From CNN’s Vasco Cotovio in London

Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky speaks during a news conference for the foreign media in Kyiv, Ukraine on January 28.
Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky speaks during a news conference for the foreign media in Kyiv, Ukraine on January 28. (Ukrainian Presidential Press Service/Reuters)

Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky called on the leaders of western nations to not say that a Russia-Ukraine war “will start tomorrow” as this sows panic and damages the Ukrainian economy. 

“I started talking to the leaders of the countries and to explain to them that we need to stabilize the economy,” he explained. “They are saying 'tomorrow is the war.' This means panic. Calm the market panic in the financial sector.”

While speaking to foreign journalists on Friday, Zelensky also said he recognized the threat from Russia was “imminent” and “constant,” but added that his country as learned to live with it. 

“We are very grateful for the assistance, but we have learned to live with this and develop with this," he said. “We have learned to protect ourselves, to defend ourselves, and those are our lives to lead.”

10:46 a.m. ET, January 28, 2022

Threat of sanctions not designed to help Ukraine, President Zelensky says

From CNN’s Matthew Chance in Kyiv and Vasco Cotovio in London

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has said the threat of sanctions against Russia is not designed to protect his country, but rather to protect the European Union, in response to a question by CNN Senior International Correspondent Matthew Chance. 

“These sanctions are not designed for our country to help our country, this is to stop full-fledged aggression towards the European Union,” Zelensky told CNN during a conversation with foreign journalists on Friday. “That's not the way to do it."

He questioned the delay in imposing the sanctions that countries are threatening Russia with.

"Many countries of the world discuss the sanctions, which will be applied only after the fact [Russian further invades,] and I'm being very honest and that's what I mean.”

Zelensky also said he understood that his country had to further develop its military before joining NATO, but said “not everything depends on us [Ukraine].”

“We have to develop our own army, we have to protect ourselves, but we understand right now perfectly well that if we are not part of NATO, then we are on our own in terms of protecting ourselves,” he said.

“We need to have something that we can count on,” he added while discussing NATO support.

9:51 a.m. ET, January 28, 2022

US and EU reiterate commitment to energy security in Ukraine and Europe

From CNN's Betsy Klein and Ivana Kottasová

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen gives a statement on Ukraine at the EU headquarters on January 24 in Brussels, Belgium.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen gives a statement on Ukraine at the EU headquarters on January 24 in Brussels, Belgium. (John Thys/AFP/Getty Images)

The US and European Union reaffirmed their commitment to energy security in Ukraine and in Europe more broadly, in a statement Friday. CNN reported earlier this week that the Biden administration is making contingency plans to shore up Europe's energy supplies should a Russian invasion of Ukraine create gas shortages and roil the global economy, according to senior administration officials.

Some background: Gas supplies from Russia play an essential role in power generation and home heating in central and eastern Europe. So, few topics are more political than energy security. With natural gas prices already near a record high, many fear further tension could cause more pain to European consumers.

While Russia has denied using energy to put pressure on Europe, the International Energy Agency has blamed Moscow for contributing to the European gas prices crisis by cutting supply. This reaffirmed commitment from the US and EU comes in preparation for the possibility that Russia could weaponize its gas exports to Europe to retaliate for any possible sanctions.

“We are jointly committed to Europe’s energy security and sustainability and to accelerating the global transition to clean energy. We also share the objective of ensuring the energy security of Ukraine and the progressive integration of Ukraine with the EU gas and electricity markets,” US President Biden and European Union President Ursula von der Leyen said in a joint statement.

The statement continued, “The United States and the EU are working jointly towards continued, sufficient, and timely supply of natural gas to the EU from diverse sources across the globe to avoid supply shocks, including those that could result from a further Russian invasion of Ukraine."

Read more here.

9:10 a.m. ET, January 28, 2022

US "trying to decide" if it will bolster some NATO allies with US troops already in Europe, Pentagon says 

From CNN's Oren Lieberman

With 8,500 US troops already on alert at bases throughout the country, the Pentagon is considering whether to bolster NATO allies with US troops already in Europe, Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said Friday on CNN’s New Day.

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.

No decision has been made yet to deploy the 8,500 US troops to Europe, Kirby said.

“We have tens of thousands of troops in Europe all over the continent and we are certainly looking at their posture as well and trying to decide whether we need to make that a little more forward leaning and whether some of our NATO allies might want some of our intrinsic, organic US forces that are already on the continent made available to them as well,” Kirby told CNN's Brianna Keilar.

CNN reported earlier this week that the US and a handful of allies are in discussions to deploy thousands more troops to Eastern European NATO countries before any potential Russian invasion of Ukraine as a show of support in the face of Moscow's ongoing aggression.

Among the countries considering accepting the deployments are Romania, Bulgaria, and Hungary. The deployments would number approximately 1,000 personnel to each country and would be similar to the forward battle groups currently stationed in the Baltic States and Poland.

Russian President Vladimir Putin continues his steady build-up of forces along Ukraine’s borders, Kirby said, giving him more options should he choose to invade Ukraine. But it remains unclear whether Putin has made a final decision to launch an operation.

“What we’re trying to discern is exactly what options he might try to endeavor to pursue,” Kirby said.

As for the continued massing of forces, Kirby said it has not been “chaotic or dramatic,” but it has moved at a steady pace.

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.