Russia-Ukraine live updates: Russian forces stay in Belarus; Biden to convene NSC about invasion threat

Russia-Ukraine live updates: Russian forces stay in Belarus; Biden to convene NSC about invasion threat

The NSC meeting lasted a little over two hours, with Vice President Harris calling in from Air Force Two on her way back to Washington from Munich, an administration official said.

Meanwhile, Belarus’s defense minister extended military exercises with Russian forces that were otherwise set to end Sunday, and he announced a joint task force to “fight back if necessary.”

The announcement that Russian forces would not return to base as planned contradicted the country’s previous assertion that not a single Russian troop or piece of equipment would remain after the drill. Before the exercise began 10 days ago, Western military analysts warned that it could be cover for an attack force to invade Ukraine from the north and potentially encircle the capital Kyiv.

Here’s what to know

French President Emmanuel Macron and Putin held a call Sunday that the European leader’s office said yielded a potential development toward diplomacy. The two agreed to work on facilitating a contact group meeting in the next few hours to work toward a cease-fire agreement, Macron’s office said. But the Kremlin’s readout of their discussion didn’t mention a possible meeting. Macron later talked about Ukraine with Biden and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson.Johnson told the BBC Sunday that the United Kingdom and the United States could take steps to prevent Russian companies from trading in British pounds and U.S. dollars if Putin invades Ukraine.Russian and Belarusian leaders said they will “continue checking” joint force readiness as military exercises are extended. Belarus Defense Minister Viktor Khrenin cited the “increase in military activity” near the border and “the aggravation of the situation” in eastern Ukraine.UNDERSTANDING THE RUSSIA-UKRAINE CONFLICT

British PM warns of economic sanctions if Russia invades; Johnson speaks with Macron about UkraineReturn to menu

The United Kingdom and the United States could take steps to prevent Russian companies from trading in British pounds and U.S. dollars if Russian President Vladimir Putin invades Ukraine, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Sunday.

“We are even, with our American friends, going to stop them trading in pounds and dollars,” Johnson said in an interview with the BBC, adding that the move “will hit very, very hard.”

London-listed Russian firms probably will be on the list of establishments targeted by possible sanctions, the Guardian reported, noting that companies with U.K.-traded shares paid Russia’s government an estimated 39 billion pounds ($53 billion) in taxes in 2020.

On Sunday evening, E.U. leader Ursula von der Leyen said Russia could be “cut off from the international financial markets” if it invaded, the Guardian reported.

Also on Sunday, Johnson spoke to French President Emmanuel Macron about “their respective diplomatic efforts, including President Macron’s call with President Putin,” according to a news release from Johnson’s office.

“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.

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

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U.S. Embassy in Moscow cautions Americans to have evacuation plans, avoid crowdsReturn to menu

The U.S. Embassy in Moscow released a security alert on Sunday, telling Americans to avoid crowds and have evacuation plans.

The embassy advised Americans to “review your personal security plans” and “have evacuation plans that do not rely on U.S. government assistance.”

It also cautioned Americans to “stay alert in locations frequented by tourists/Westerners” and to carry proper identification including a U.S. passport with a Russian visa.

The embassy, which cited “media sources” without giving specifics, said there had been “threats of attacks against shopping centers, railway and metro stations and other public gathering places in major urban areas,” including Moscow and St. Petersburg, as well as in areas of tension along the border with Ukraine, the embassy said. The U.S. Embassy in Moscow did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The US Embassy in Moscow has issued a security alert for US citizens regarding possible terrorist attacks in Russia…

💬 Maria #Zakharova: A question to @USEmbRu –

did you share the data with Russian colleagues through partner channels?

❓ If not, what should we make of this? pic.twitter.com/3q3jL7ea77

— MFA Russia 🇷🇺 (@mfa_russia) February 20, 2022

In a tweet, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova asked whether the U.S. Embassy had “share[d] the data with Russian colleagues through partner channels.”

“And if not, how is one to understand all of this?” Zakharova said.

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Protesters in several European and U.S. cities urge Putin to back offReturn to menu

Hundreds of people gathered in several European cities and the United States in solidarity with Ukraine as the small nation braced for a potential invasion by its Russian neighbor.

On Sunday, hundreds of protesters waved Ukrainian, Polish and E.U. flags in Warsaw, with some holding signs that read “We Are With Ukraine” and “Hands Off Ukraine,” according to Agence France-Press and local media outlets.

In Madrid, the AFP reported that about 500 people demonstrated against Russian military aggression in Plaza de España, where participants also waved blue and yellow Ukrainian flags or wore them on their backs.

“We are worried for the future of our homeland and for what could happen to our families, but we are not afraid,” Yuriy Chopyk, a Ukrainian living in Spain who was at the protest told 20 Minutos, a local news site.

“Every Ukrainian is a soldier and will defend their land,” he added.

The protests echoed the pleas of Western leaders who in recent days have urged Russian President Vladimir Putin to call off troops near Ukraine.

Across the Atlantic, about 300 demonstrators gathered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington on Sunday afternoon.

Ukrainian Americans and other supporters draped flags over their shoulders or hoisted signs into the air, demanding that Putin withdraw his troops.

Some in the crowd were optimistic that the demonstration would also send a strong message to the White House and encourage President Biden to impose stricter sanctions against Russia. Others expressed fear for friends and relatives.

“It’s very important for our people to know they’re not alone in the world, that people are standing with them,” said Ruslan Semchuk, 49, who was born in Ukraine and has lived in the United States for almost two decades. He drove with a friend from Stamford, Conn., to attend Sunday’s demonstration.

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Biden convenes National Security Council to discuss UkraineReturn to menu

A rare Sunday meeting of the National Security Council on the situation in Ukraine has ended, according to the White House. It lasted for a little over two hours, an NSC official said.

Vice President Harris called in from Air Force Two on her way back to Washington from Munich, where she attended the Munich Security Conference along with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and other leaders over the weekend.

Today, President Biden convened a meeting of the National Security Council to discuss the latest developments regarding Russia’s military buildup on the borders of Ukraine. pic.twitter.com/v3EKIj9PRb

— The White House (@WhiteHouse) February 20, 2022

The White House posted a photo of the meeting, attended by officials including national security adviser Jake Sullivan, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, CIA Director William J. Burns, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark A. Milley. A placard for Avril Haines, director of national intelligence, was also pictured.

The meeting also included those involved with the sanctions and energy components of the Ukraine situation, including Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen, Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo and Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm.

A brief release sent after the meeting gave few details other than that the officials discussed the latest developments related to Russia’s military buildup near Ukraine.

Biden also spoke with French President Emmanuel Macron on Sunday afternoon, according to the White House.

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European Council president warns of ‘massive sanctions,’ which would ‘also be a cost for us, in Europe’Return to menu

The president of the European Council on Sunday restated Brussels’s commitment to imposing new sanctions on Moscow if Russia moves ahead with an invasion, while also taking action to buoy financial assistance to Ukraine.

Speaking at the Munich Security Conference, Charles Michel said the European Council plans to raise 1.2 billion euros ($1.4 billion) for Ukraine and proposed to launch an international donors conference to protect the nation’s economic stability.

“One thing is certain: If there is further military aggression, we will react with massive sanctions,” he said. “The cost for Russia must be, and will be, severe.”

Then he added: “But let’s be frank, it will also be a cost for us, in Europe.”

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has demanded stronger action from world leaders as the threat of an attack by Russia remains. He urged Western leaders Saturday to state publicly their plans for sanctions on Russia, saying that after a war begins, such declarations would be too late.

The European Council represents the governments of European Union member nations.

Michel’s remarks follow those of other European leaders and political groups in the European Parliament that condemned Russia’s military buildup around Ukraine, and as European diplomats carry out efforts at the Munich Security Conference to try to ease tensions.

Michel said Moscow’s efforts to sow division among European nations and across the world have created the opposite effect.

“They hoped to sow division, to weaken our alliance, to divide us. In fact, they have done exactly the opposite. Our unity has been cemented, both within the E.U. and across the Atlantic,” Michel said.

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Video shows journalists and Ukrainian interior minister running from mortar fireReturn to menu

Journalists and Ukranian officials, including Interior Minister Denys Monastyrskiy, came under mortar fire in Novoluhanske, Ukraine on Feb. 19. (Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Ukrainian service)Video shows a group including journalists and Ukrainian Interior Minister Denys Monastyrskiy running from mortar fire in the nation’s Donetsk region, near a separatist-controlled area, on Saturday.

Footage filmed by Maryan Kushnir of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Ukrainian service captures the group — many dressed in camouflage garb and safety vests — running and taking cover on the ground as blasts are heard in Novoluhanske.

“Here! On the ground!” came shouts from the group. “Move it! Fire!”

According to Kushnir, mortars were fired first, then shells fell about 1,000 feet (300 meters) from the location of the minister and journalists.

There has been a sharp upswing in firing from the separatists’ side over the past few days. Separatist officials have accused Ukraine on the messaging app Telegram of firing on the territories that their forces control and said they had to respond accordingly. Ukrainian officials have denied attacks.

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Ukrainian ambassador to the U.S. says Russian attacks ‘will not help their cause’Return to menu

United States officials warned that Russia would likely invade Ukraine in the near future as diplomatic talks continued on Feb. 20. (JM Rieger/The Washington Post)On CBS’s “Face the Nation” on Sunday, Oksana Markarova, the Ukrainian ambassador to the United States, said that what Ukraine has seen over the past few days stands in stark contrast to what Russian officials have claimed, citing intensifying shelling by Russian forces in eastern Ukraine.

“While preparing to defend our country, we’re using every possibility to still choose the diplomatic path and force Russia to choose the diplomatic path,” Markarova said. “We are calling not only on the aggressor, which is Russia, but also on all of our friends and allies to get together and use every opportunity to still deter Russia from invading.”

In frank terms, Markarova said there were many Ukrainians in and out of the country who were “ready to resist and fight for Ukraine,” and she emphasized that Russia’s aggressions would ultimately “not help their cause.”

“Whatever crimes they are willing to commit in order to kill some of us, it will not stop others” from fighting for Ukraine, she said.

.@margbrennan: “You have the largest military buildup in Europe since the end of World War II. How do you expect NATO to react?”

Amb. Antonov: “You’ll see that we did a lot of to withdraw our troops from various regions…And nobody even said us ‘thank you.’” pic.twitter.com/XLVz29Ffnt

— Face The Nation (@FaceTheNation) February 20, 2022

In a contentious interview on “Face the Nation,” Anatoly Antonov, the Russian ambassador to the United States, continued to insist there were no plans for a Russian invasion of Ukraine, despite a massive buildup of their troops on three of Ukraine’s borders and despite U.S. intelligence that indicated those troops had received orders to proceed with a full-scale attack.

Antonov also decried NATO as “not a defensive alliance” and pushed back when “Face the Nation” host Margaret Brennan pointed out that Russia’s actions did not match its officials’ words.

“You’ll see that we did a lot … to withdraw our troops from various regions that are very close to [the] Baltic States,” Antonov said. “And nobody even said [to] us ‘thank you.’ ”

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Blinken says U.S. not willing to recognize Crimea, eastern Ukraine territories as part of Russia to avoid warReturn to menu

Asked Sunday if the United States would recognize Crimea and eastern Ukraine territories as part of Russia to avoid war, Secretary of State Antony Blinken definitively said “no.”

“No, hard stop. That is not up for negotiation?” CBS “Face the Nation” host Margaret Brennan asked him.

“That’s correct,” Blinken responded.

In an interview that also aired Sunday on “Face the Nation,” Anatoly Antonov, the Russian ambassador to the United States, insisted to Brennan that those were not the issues at hand. Russia invaded and annexed the Crimean Peninsula in 2014.

“[The] issue of Crimea is solved. [The] issue of Crimea is closed for us,” Antonov said. “It’s a Russian territory and we don’t want even to discuss this issue at all.”

Antonov denied there were plans for a Russian invasion of Ukraine, though Brennan later noted that their interview had been taped before U.S. intelligence reports indicated that Russian troops, which have been amassed on three of Ukraine’s borders, had been ordered to proceed with a full-scale attack.

“We have our legitimate right to have our troops where we want on Russian territory,” Antonov said. “And I would like to say to you that we are not threatening to anybody.”

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With or without war, Ukraine gives Biden a new lease on leadershipReturn to menu

Six months ago, the transatlantic alliance was on shaky ground, with President Biden’s promise of a reinvigorated NATO under U.S. leadership severely undermined by the Afghanistan debacle and a foreign policy that seemed unready for prime time.

Today, Biden and his team have redeemed themselves in the eyes of many NATO allies, with a tough stance on Ukraine and the successful wrangling of the often-fractious alliance to support it.

Ukraine’s fate, and Russia’s future relationship with the West, remain uncertain. Biden has said he is convinced Russian President Vladimir Putin, with more than 150,000 troops and massive weaponry amassed on Ukraine’s borders, has decided to invade, despite the West’s offered carrot of negotiations over a new European security architecture to address his concerns if he withdraws, and the threatened stick of harsh sanctions and isolation if he does not.

But regardless of the outcome, officials, diplomats and experts have already begun charting the winners and losers.

Macron calls Putin, then Zelensky, to push for meeting on cease-fireReturn to menu

With Western officials warning that Russia could launch an attack on Ukraine at any moment, French President Emmanuel Macron made another attempt at diplomacy Sunday, phoning both Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

Macron’s conversation with Putin lasted 90 minutes, according to Kremlin pool reporters.

Macron’s office said the two agreed to work on facilitating a meeting of the Trilateral Contact Group — which includes Ukraine, Russia and the Organization for Cooperation and Security in Europe — to be held in the next few hours with the aim of agreeing to a cease-fire on the line of contact between Ukrainian government forces and Russia-backed separatists.

But the Kremlin’s readout of their discussion didn’t mention a possible Trilateral Contact Group meeting. Its statement said that “taking into account the acuteness of the current state of affairs, the presidents considered it expedient to intensify the search for solutions through diplomatic means.”

Russia’s foreign ministry said in a statement that everything Putin and Macron talked about was in the Kremlin readout and anything else is “interpretations.”

Zelensky said on Twitter that Ukraine stands “for intensifying the peace process. We support the immediate convening of the [Trilateral Contact Group] and the immediate introduction of a regime of silence.”

The Ukrainian military said Saturday that there’s been a “tenfold” increase in shelling from the separatists’ side of the demarcation line since Thursday. Moscow and the separatists have claimed that Ukraine is firing on their positions, which is denied by Ukrainian officials.

Putin may not stop at Ukraine, as Britain’s foreign secretary warns: ‘Which country will it be next?’ Return to menu

Russian President Vladimir Putin “will not stop at Ukraine,” British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said, warning that neighboring countries could be targeted if the international community fails to “stand up” to what she called “Russian aggression.”

“It could be Ukraine next week, but then which country will it be next?” Truss said in an interview with Britain’s Mail on Sunday as she called on Britain and its allies to avert a global crisis.

Truss pointed to Putin’s ambitions to “create the Greater Russia,” saying that she believes “he wants to go back to the situation as it was before where Russia had control over huge swaths of Eastern Europe.” ” … He’s been very clear — his ambition doesn’t just lead to him taking control of Ukraine, he wants to turn the clock back to the mid-1990s or even before then.” Truss cited the Baltic states and the western Balkans as being at risk.

Finnish president Niinisto, who has maintained ties with Putin: Russia taking ‘two steps forward, one back’Return to menu

Finnish President Sauli Niinisto, who has maintained closer ties with Putin than most Western leaders, said he believes there are still three possible outcomes to the situation between Russia and Ukraine, with a peaceful resolution being the alternative that is furthest away.

“The second option is that we will see a full-scale war,” Niinisto said on CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday. “And the third one, which is as bad, is that we see this kind of … two steps forward, one back, that is increasing tensions all the time.”

That third scenario is the one Niinisto believes is the most likely in the near future. Niinisto told the New York Times earlier this month that he had noticed a change in Putin’s “state of mind” and “decisiveness” with regard to Ukraine, but said that Putin acts in ways that are difficult to predict — perhaps intentionally to sow confusion.

Nevertheless, Niinisto said Sunday he does not fear Russian aggression in Finland, despite the two countries sharing an 830-mile-long border, partly because of geography and because Finland has been a stable democracy for more than a century. But Russia will be more dangerous if it invades Ukraine successfully, he added.

“I think that we are actually almost in a colder situation than we were during that traditional Cold War,” Niinisto said, noting that there were agreements then between the United States and the Soviet Union limiting arms. “Now, we do not have actually anything, no agreements anymore. So this makes the situation, in my opinion, much more vulnerable.”

Blinken: Biden prepared to engage with Putin ‘at any time, in any format’ to prevent warReturn to menu

Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Sunday said President Biden is prepared to engage with Russian President Vladimir Putin “at any time, in any format, if that can help prevent a war,” despite the increased threat of a full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine.

“We believe President Putin has made the decision [to invade Ukraine],” Blinken said on CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday. “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.”

“We believe Pres. Putin has made the decision, but until the tanks are actually rolling… we will use every opportunity and every minute we have to see if diplomacy can still dissuade” a Russian invasion, says Secy. of State Antony Blinken on Ukraine-Russia tensions. #CNNSOTU pic.twitter.com/FvKcdtlK3z

— State of the Union (@CNNSotu) February 20, 2022

Like Blinken, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said Sunday that the Biden administration has forecast crippling sanctions as a deterrent on Putin, while holding them back so far because an invasion has not begun.

“If you pull the trigger on that deterrent, well, then it doesn’t exist anymore as a deterrent,” Kirby said on “Fox News Sunday.”

“[Putin] has not conducted another invasion in Ukraine yet, and we still think there is time to prevent that,” Kirby added. “It’s supposed to be a deterrent. If you punish somebody for something they haven’t done yet, then they may as well just go ahead and do it. So, we’re holding that in abeyance and we’re hoping that can affect the calculus of Mr. Putin.”

Why some observers think Sunday will be the day Russia acts against UkraineReturn to menu

Analysts looking at Russia’s menacing buildup of troops on Ukraine’s borders have long circled Feb. 20 as a day to watch for potential action. Sunday marks the confluence of several events and milestones that some think could — amid the feverish guessing game surrounding the standoff — hold deeper meaning. Here are some of the things happening:

Joint military exercises with Russian and Belarusian forces conclude. The combined war games are the largest ever between the two allies and looked to many military observers more like the staging for an invasion than typical training maneuvers. Russia has said it would bring significant numbers of troops and equipment back from Belarus when the exercises were complete. The satellites will be watching closely to see to see if that happens.Kyiv residents will hold a number of public events to mark the eighth anniversary of the bloodiest day of their Maidan Revolution. On Feb. 20, 2014, riot police opened fire on protesters near Kyiv’s Maidan Square, a key site in the capital city since the country’s independence movement in 1990. About 50 people were killed, triggering events that toppled Ukraine’s pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych, and paving way for a pro-Western coalition government. Ukrainians call their uprising “The Revolution of Dignity” and view it as a victory over Yanukovych’s Moscow-aligned, corruption-riddled regime. But Putin has characterized it as a coup d’etat engineered by the West.The Beijing Olympics draw to a close. Speculation has been rampant that Russia would hold off on launching a major military escalation in Ukraine during the Games as a courtesy to its increasingly close ally China. The thinking goes, according to some, that Russian President Vladimir Putin wouldn’t want to distract from the Games staged by Chinese President Xi Jinping, especially after the two literally embraced during the Olympics’ Opening Ceremonies on Feb. 4.The Munich Security Conference wraps up in Germany. The “Davos of Defense” is the biggest annual gathering of world leaders and military chiefs of the year and has been a hallmark of European security cooperation for almost 60 years. Putin, who used the event to rail against NATO expansion in 2007, boycotted this year’s meeting even as Russia’s looming threats to Ukraine dominated the agenda.
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