Russia-Ukraine live updates: West braces for false-flag operations by Kremlin as fighting in eastern Ukraine escalates

Russia-Ukraine live updates: West braces for false-flag operations by Kremlin as fighting in eastern Ukraine escalates

The threat of renewed war in Ukraine escalated Saturday as shelling and military preparations by Russian-backed separatists picked up in the country’s contested east.

At a major security conference in Munich, Vice President Harris warned of far-reaching sanctions against Russia and its allies in the event of an invasion. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, meanwhile, accused world leaders of appeasing Russia and urged them to take stronger action to support his country.

The rush to find a diplomatic solution came after President Biden said Friday that his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, has “made the decision” to strike Ukraine, warning of Kremlin-orchestrated false-flag operations in the coming days as pretexts for an attack. On Saturday night, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Biden would meet with the National Security Council on Sunday to discuss Ukraine.

Fighting between Ukrainian government forces and pro-Russian militants intensified, meanwhile, with Ukrainian military officials reporting a tenfold increase in shelling by pro-Russian militants in the area.

Here’s what to know

Belarusian military officials said Russian troops deployed to the country for joint drills may stay there past the official end of the exercise Sunday. Their presence has increased fears about the Russian military surrounding Ukraine from a number of strategic positions.U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on Saturday said Russian forces have advanced essentially every capability needed to invade Ukraine, but he said there are pathways to avoid a bloody conflict. Meanwhile, artillery fire, including from mortars and grenades, pounded a border town in Ukraine’s east.President Vladimir Putin oversaw a major military exercise Saturday of Russia’s nuclear forces, involving the launch of hypersonic missiles. The exercises are taking place as the United States asserts that Russia probably has massed as many as 190,000 troops in and around Ukraine, or nearly double the 100,000 estimated in late January.UNDERSTANDING THE RUSSIA-UKRAINE CONFLICT

Why might Russia want to invade Ukraine? Return to menu

Will he or won’t he?

That’s the question the world is asking about whether Russian President Vladimir Putin plans to invade Ukraine.

U.S. officials have said that a full-scale invasion by Russian troops is imminent. In a televised address Friday, President Biden said that he was “convinced” Putin had made the decision to invade and would attack in a matter of days.

Here’s what we know about why Russia might want to invade Ukraine.

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Ukrainian President Zelensky has ‘urgent conversation’ with France’s President Macron Return to menu

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said Saturday that he had “an urgent conversation” with his French counterpart, President Emmanuel Macron.

He and Macron “discussed the need and possible ways of immediate de-escalation & political-diplomatic settlement,” Zelensky wrote.

In a tweet, Zelensky said he informed Macron “about the aggravation on the frontline, our losses.” They also spoke about the Saturday incident in which Ukrainian politicians and international journalists came under mortar fire as they toured the front lines with Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine.

Had an urgent conversation with President @EmmanuelMacron. Informed about the aggravation on the frontline, our losses, the shelling of 🇺🇦 politicians & international journalists. Discussed the need and possible ways of immediate de-escalation & political-diplomatic settlement.

— Володимир Зеленський (@ZelenskyyUa) February 19, 2022

Maryan Kushnir, a correspondent for Radio Svoboda, who was on the Novoluhansk tour during the attack, said shells fell several hundred yards from where the officials — including Ukraine’s Interior Minister Denys Monastyrskiy — and journalists were visiting.

“Just now, they opened mortar fire at our interior minister,” Kushnir said in a video posted on Twitter by Radio Svoboda.

Macron is scheduled to have a phone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Sunday — their fifth in 2022, Russian news agency Tass reported.

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Talks on crisis canceled for second time in two daysReturn to menu

By David L. Stern5:34 p.m.

LVIV, Ukraine — A top European diplomat said Saturday that talks aimed at defusing the growing tensions in eastern Ukraine did not take place because “some participants linked their attendance to certain political preconditions.”

The meeting of the Trilateral Contact Group was canceled for the second time in two days. The group includes officials from Russia, Ukraine and the office of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) tasked with finding a peaceful resolution to the conflict in eastern Ukraine.

Western diplomats have focused their attention on the group in recent weeks, in the hope that it might provide a forum where Ukraine and Russia could find grounds for compromise and persuade Russia to withdraw its forces from Ukraine’s borders.

“This morning, I convened an extraordinary meeting of the Trilateral Contact Group,” said Ambassador Mikko Kinnunen, a special representative in Ukraine to the OSCE. “Unfortunately, and despite the worsening situation in the conflict related to eastern Ukraine, some participants linked their attendance to certain political preconditions.”

Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov said in a statement posted on social media Saturday that Russian representatives “refused to participate” in the meeting.

“Every opportunity should be used in order to defuse tensions and reduce the risk of unwanted consequences,” Kinnunen said. “For three days now, we have been observing a worrying degree of escalation, including military activities, and inflammatory rhetoric.”

Later Saturday, the European Council’s foreign affairs representative reiterated the bloc’s “unwavering support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity within its internationally recognised borders.”

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China criticizes NATO: ‘Is it conducive to maintaining peace and stability in Europe?’Return to menu

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi criticized NATO on Saturday, accusing the organization of fumbling as tensions between Russia and the West rise over Ukraine.

“If NATO keeps expanding eastward, is it conducive to maintaining peace and stability in Europe?” he said at a major security conference in Munich. “Since the Cold War is long gone, NATO, a product of the Cold War, needs to adapt itself to the changing circumstances.”

The comments came after NATO leaders described China as being a “systemic challenge” and a security risk at their annual security conference in Brussels. China accused NATO at the time of spreading “lies, rumors and baseless accusations.”

When asked about Wang’s comments on Saturday, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg rebuked the remarks.

“For the first time, we now see Beijing joining Moscow in calling on NATO to stop admitting new members,” he said. “It is an attempt to control the fate of free nations. To rewrite the international rule book. And impose their own authoritarian models of governance.”

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Canada gives rifles, machine guns and other military equipment to UkraineReturn to menu

Canada is sending military equipment and a loan for development aid to Ukraine in the midst of the country’s crisis with Russia.

Ukraine’s Defense Department stated in a news release Saturday that a Royal Canadian Air Force C-17 transport plane arrived at Danylo Halytskyi International Airport in Lviv, about 350 miles west of Kyiv and within a short drive to the Polish border. Lviv has morphed into the “western capital” of the country as diplomats have left Kyiv.

“We received military aid in the form of rifles, machine guns with optical sights, night vision and surveillance devices and military equipment,” tweeted Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov. “Thank you for this important and timely decision!”

Weapons for @ArmedForcesUkr from our close 🇨🇦 friends ✅ We received military aid in the form of rifles,machine guns with optical sights,night vision&surveillance devices&military equipment.Thank you for this important & timely decision! @AnitaAnandMP special thank to You 🇺🇦🤝🇨🇦 pic.twitter.com/JgaK4iPqId

— Oleksii Reznikov (@oleksiireznikov) February 19, 2022

The decision was also confirmed by Canadian Defense Minister Anita Anand, who met with Reznikov at a major security conference in Munich.

“We stand with Ukraine,” Anand wrote. “With lethal and nonlethal military aid, a loan of up to $500M and development aid, we are providing comprehensive assistance to help Ukraine defend its sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

We stand with Ukraine. With lethal and non-lethal military aid, a loan of up to $500M and development aid, we are providing comprehensive assistance to help Ukraine defend its sovereignty and territorial integrity. Great to meet again with @oleksiireznikov in Munich today. 🇨🇦🇺🇦 pic.twitter.com/0R65RMEwkE

— Anita Anand (@AnitaAnandMP) February 19, 2022

Canada isn’t the only country prepared to assist Ukraine with weaponry: Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said his country was ready to provide weapons to Ukraine, according to Reuters.

“We are ready to provide additional supplies of defensive weapons … weapons that are to be used to defend [Ukraine’s] territory, defend cities, defend people, places where they are against the aggressions of the Russian army,” Morawiecki said at a news conference.

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Diplomats make last-ditch push for peaceful resolution to Ukraine crisisReturn to menu

Western diplomats made a last-ditch push for a peaceful resolution to tensions between Russia and Ukraine at the Munich Security Conference on Saturday, emphasizing that diplomacy remained an option up until the possible moment when Moscow launches an attack.

“While we’re convinced that President Putin has made his decision to go, until that — it actually happens — we will leave no stone unturned when it comes to diplomacy,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken told German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung.

His remarks came a day after President Biden said the U.S. government had reason to believe Putin has decided to invade Ukraine.

Blinken said he still planned to meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov next week if Russia does not launch an incursion by then. The United States remains ready to engage with Russia on issues including the positioning of weapons systems and forces, he said.

Blinken called the level of coordination between the United States and Europe unprecedented.

“It’s the product of a very deliberate effort on both sides to do that,” he said. “And that means that whether we’re proceeding with whatever diplomatic opportunities may still be left, we’re doing it in a fully coordinated way. And if it comes to confronting Russian aggression, we’re also fully coordinated and the response will be swift, unified, and consequential.”

He added that Putin’s actions have produced “the opposite of his aims” by knitting NATO closer together and leading the alliance to shore up its eastern flank.

Pressed in a separate interview with Russian television channel Dozhd TV about the reliability of U.S. intelligence on Putin’s plans, Blinken said that although some information has “turned out to be inaccurate,” U.S. officials are confident in the intelligence.

“We’re very confident in the information we have, and we bring it forward not to start a war, but to prevent a war,” he said.

Foreign ministers with the Group of Seven called on Russia to de-escalate tensions with Ukraine. In a statement released by the White House, foreign ministers of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom, the United States and the High Representative of the European Union reiterated their “unwavering commitment to the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine within its internationally recognized borders and territorial waters.”

“Russia’s unprovoked and unjustified massing of military forces, the largest deployment on the European continent since the end of the Cold War is a challenge to global security and the international order,” the group wrote. “We call on Russia to choose the path of diplomacy.”

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Ukrainian president says West should make sanctions on Russia public nowReturn to menu

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said Saturday that possible Western sanctions against Russia should be made public now to deter Moscow from invading Ukraine.

“We don’t need your sanctions after the bombardment will happen and after our country will be fired at or after we will have no borders and after we will have no economy or part of our country will be occupied. Why would we need those sanctions then?” he asked in an interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour during a security conference in Munich.

Zelensky clarified that he was not necessarily asking countries to introduce sanctions today — just to make public a list “for Russia to know what will happen if they start the war.” But he acknowledged that there is little support for such a move among Western powers.

The United States and European allies have threatened severe economic consequences if Russia invades Ukraine, but some details remain to be agreed on or announced.

Before the CNN interview, Zelensky suggested that if Ukraine doesn’t receive new security guarantees from signatories of the Budapest Memorandum, it would consider the agreement void. The 1994 agreement, originally signed by Russia, the United States and Britain, gave security assurances to Ukraine in exchange for Ukraine giving up the sizable nuclear arsenal it acquired after the fall of the Soviet Union.

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Ukraine’s ‘worst-case scenario’ could come next week, British foreign minister saysReturn to menu

British Foreign Minister Liz Truss said Saturday that Ukraine’s “worst-case scenario” of a potential Russian invasion could happen as soon as next week.

Speaking at the Munich Security Conference, Truss said that Europe is facing one of its most serious security situations in years.

“That worst-case scenario could happen as early as next week,” she said. “The reality is that Russia does want to turn the clock back.”

Truss said there’s been a significant increase in disinformation throughout the region, including what she described as false-flag operations in Donbas, a contested region of eastern Ukraine where Kyiv government forces have been locked in a years-long conflict with Moscow-backed militants.

“I’m afraid that Russia has shown that they are not serious about diplomacy,” she said. “We need to be strong because that is the only thing that Russia understands.”

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Two Ukrainian soldiers killed, five wounded in eastern Ukraine shelling, defense minister saysReturn to menu

By David L. Stern12:54 p.m.

LVIV, Ukraine — Two Ukrainian soldiers were killed and five others were wounded as a result of shelling in eastern Ukraine on Saturday, the country’s defense minister, Oleksii Reznikov, said.

Reznikov did not provide further details in a statement posted on social media.

The defense minister reiterated that Ukrainian government forces were not planning to launch an offensive in the nation’s eastern Donbas region. But he also said Kyiv would “not allow the firing on the positions of our troops and human settlements with impunity.”

The deaths come as the Ukrainian military reports a tenfold increase in shelling in the past three days, accusing separatists of using weapons banned in previous agreements.

The sound of shelling could be heard at a crossing between Ukraine and the separatist-controlled Luhansk territory Saturday — another indication of an escalation in fighting and tension between Ukraine’s government forces and the pro-Russian militants.

Ukraine’s Zelensky criticizes West for ‘appeasement’ of RussiaReturn to menu

During the Munich Security Conference on Feb. 12, President Volodymyr Zelensky slammed European leaders for years of inaction in the face of Russian hostility. (AP)Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky received a standing ovation when he took the podium at the Munich Security Conference on Saturday. But after thanking the crowd for the warm reception, Zelensky had some sharp words for Western leaders.

“Has our world completely forgotten the mistakes of the 20th century? Where does the appeasement policy usually lead to?” he said.

He added: “How did we get to this point in the 21st century where war is being waged and people are dying in Europe? … To me, this answer is obvious: The security architecture of our world is brittle, it is obsolete. The rules that have been agreed upon by the world dozens of years ago are no longer working.”

Zelensky traveled to the conference to speak to assembled dignitaries about the escalating threat of a Russian invasion as shelling by Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine intensified.

Zelensky blamed countries around the world for their “indifference that turns them into accomplices” as “some countries are committing crimes.” He said the global security system is slow and ineffective, likening it to “a cough syrup instead of a good covid vaccine.”

Western officials repeated their support for Ukraine at the conference this weekend and warned that Russia will face severe sanctions if it attacks. Some countries have also sent defensive weaponry and other supplies to Ukraine.

Zelensky thanked countries for their support but cast the crisis as a grave threat to Europe writ large, arguing that the West had an obligation to do more to prevent “a third world war.”

“Everybody needs to understand this is not some kind of donation Ukraine should be reminding or begging for, this is not just a broad gesture that Ukraine should be bowing down for — this is your contribution into the European and international security for which Ukraine has been serving as a shield for eight years now,” he said.

Zelensky called on NATO to specify a timeline for Ukraine’s possible membership in the alliance. He also asked for additional military support to Ukraine and preventive sanctions against Russia.

In an interview with CNN, Zelensky said any provocations in eastern Ukraine would be dangerous. “One shelling, one cannon fire can lead to war,” he warned.

Lufthansa and Austrian Airlines will suspend flights to Kyiv through the end of the monthReturn to menu

Lufthansa and Austrian Airlines announced Saturday that all flights to the Ukrainian capital will be temporarily suspended as fears of a potential Russian strike mount.

The German airliner Lufthansa said in a news release that the company was suspending flights to and from Kyiv between Monday and Feb. 28.

“Lufthansa is constantly monitoring the situation and will decide on further flights at a later date,” the company said.

Austrian Airlines, which is part of the Lufthansa Group, noted that it was suspending flights to Kyiv from Sunday through the end of the month. The company said flights to Odessa would also be suspended during that period.

The moves come shortly after Dutch airline KLM announced that all flights into Ukraine were canceled until further notice.

Lufthansa and Austrian Airlines are still offering flights to Lviv, a western city close to the Polish border, according to Bloomberg News.

Ukraine rejects Russia’s claim of cross-border shellingReturn to menu

KYIV, Ukraine — Ukrainian officials rejected claims it had fired artillery rounds onto Russian soil, saying the claims were part of false flag operations to justify an invasion.

Russian state-owned media claimed artillery was fired over the border and landed in the Rostov region.

“We resolutely refute all accusations of any alleged Ukrainian shells falling on the Russian territory. Ukraine has never opened any such fire,” said Dmytro Kuleba, Ukraine’s foreign affairs minister. “We call for an immediate and impartial international investigation of the incidents reported by Russian media.”

Lt. General Valerii Zaluzhnyi, the head of Ukraine’s armed forces, said in a statement that the alleged shelling exceeded the reach of its artillery in the region.

“The invaders themselves undermine infrastructure in the occupied territories, carry out chaotic shelling of settlements and deliberately produce false reports,” Zaluzhnyi said.

Russia’s Investigative Committee on Saturday opened a criminal investigation into what it called, without evidence, “the fact of shelling” in the Rostov region in southern Russia “from the territory of Ukraine.” Earlier, Interfax cited Rostov authorities stating they found two exploded shells near a village in the region.

Germany, France urge nationals to leave UkraineReturn to menu

Germany and France on Saturday urged their nationals to immediately leave Ukraine as tensions with Russia and shelling in Ukraine’s east increased.

“German nationals are urged to leave the country now,” Germany’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement. “A military confrontation is possible at any time.”

The statement warned that support for German nationals in Ukraine would be limited if Russia invades.

The French Foreign Ministry called on French nationals in Kharkiv, Luhansk and Donetsk — areas in eastern Ukraine, where shelling by Russia-backed separatists has intensified in recent days — to leave quickly. It recommended that people exercise increased vigilance and refrain from traveling to the north or east of the country, and that French citizens who do not have a “compelling motive” to remain in Ukraine depart the country.

France’s ambassador to Ukraine, Etienne de Poncins, last week urged French citizens in Ukraine to prepare a supply of water, food, warm clothing and fuel but said France was not “at this stage” asking all French residents of Ukraine to leave the country.

The United States, Britain and other countries have already urged their citizens to leave Ukraine.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian and his German counterpart, Annalena Baerbock, condemned “the use of heavy weaponry and indiscriminate shelling of civilian areas” in the contested east, they said in a statement Friday, calling the activity a “clear violation of the Minsk agreements.”

Artillery, mortars and grenades pound border townReturn to menu

NOVOLUHANSKE, Ukraine — Outside the border city of Novoluhanske, Ukrainian army Brigade Commander Olexandr Zinevitch showed journalists where separatist forces have been pounding an abandoned industrial area with artillery in recent days.

Earlier Saturday, a 27-year-old Ukrainian private had been sprinting to shelter across the asphalt when he was knocked from his feet by a shell. “He’s going to lose his hand,” Zinevitch said, flipping through photographs of the injury on his phone.

A civilian fisherman had been shot in the morning, Zinevitch said, but not seriously injured.

This area has not been a hot spot in the last several years, with almost no shelling. Zinevitch sees the eruption of attacks over the last three days — including artillery, mortars and grenades — as evidence of a coordinated campaign by Russia.

Moscow is trying to provoke Ukrainian forces into responding and giving Russia an excuse to launch a major attack, he said. He has told his troops not to respond unless their lives are in danger.

“The Russian Federation is trying to lead us into war with a lie,” Zinevitch said.

A few minutes later, as the group of journalists and the soldiers escorting them were pulling away in military vehicles, an artillery shell slammed into the ground 200 yards away.

The leading vehicles raced from the spot as more shells sounded to the east. A man who had been tinkering with his pickup truck rushed on foot toward safety in the village.

At the entrance to a military blast shelter near an apartment building, soldiers rushed journalists and several residents into the darkness. They waited inside, unsure if the booms sounding every few minutes were the start of something even more frightening.

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