Russia-Ukraine news from February 18: Biden says Moscow has plan to attack Kyiv in ‘coming days’.
United States President Joe Biden has said he is “convinced” that Russia’s Vladimir Putin has made a decision to invade Ukraine, warning Moscow against starting what he called a “war of choice” that would be catastrophic.
But the US president said the door for diplomacy remains open. Until war breaks out, “diplomacy is always a possibility”, Biden told reporters on Friday.
Meanwhile, Ukraine’s top security official Oleksiy Danilov accused Russia of staging provocations in conflict-hit eastern Ukraine to try to provoke Ukraine’s military to respond, but added that Kyiv would stick to peaceful ways to defuse the crisis.
Danilov said on Friday Ukraine had no plans to recapture separatist-held territories by force, adding that a full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine was unlikely.
Earlier, Moscow-backed separatist leaders in eastern Ukraine announced they will evacuate civilians to Russia as fears of a significant escalation in fighting grow.
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After holding calls with European leaders and US legislators attending the Munich Security Conference, Biden said the US is united internally and on the same page as its allies in rejecting a Russian invasion of Ukraine.
“Despite Russia’s efforts to divide us at home and abroad, I can affirm that has not happened,” Biden said on Friday. “The overwhelming message of both on both calls was one of unity, determination and resolve.”
The American people are united. Europe is united. The Transatlantic community is united. The entire free world is united.
Russia has a choice — between war and all the suffering that it will bring — or diplomacy that will make the future safer for everyone.
— President Biden (@POTUS) February 18, 2022
Biden said he is “convinced” that Russia’s Putin has made a decision to invade Ukraine, but he stressed that the door for diplomacy to prevent war remains open.
Asked how he had come to that conclusion, Biden told reporters: “We have a significant intelligence capability.”
Biden has accused Russia of planning to attack the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, in the “coming days”.
“We have reason to believe the Russian forces are planning and intend to attack Ukraine in the coming week – in the coming days,” the US president said on Friday. “We believe that they will target Ukraine’s capital Kyiv, a city of 2.8 million innocent people.”
Biden renewed calls for Moscow to de-escalate. “If Russia pursues this plan, it will be responsible for a catastrophic and needless war of choice,” he said.
US President Joe Biden and his European counterparts affirmed support for Ukraine’s “sovereignty and territorial integrity” and renewed warnings for Russia against invading its neighbour during a phone call on Friday, the White House said.
“They pledged to continue pursuing diplomacy to de-escalate tensions while ensuring readiness to impose swift, coordinated economic costs on Russia should it choose further conflict,” the White House said in a statement describing the talks.
“The leaders also discussed efforts to ensure the defense and security of NATO’s eastern flank.”
The call included the leaders of the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy, Poland and Romania as well as European Union and NATO officials.
I spoke today with Transatlantic Allies and partners to discuss Russia’s military build-up in and around Ukraine. We agreed on our support for Ukraine, to continue diplomatic efforts, and affirmed our readiness to impose massive costs on Russia should it choose further conflict.
— President Biden (@POTUS) February 18, 2022
Former NATO chief Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said it appears that Putin has not made a decision on whether to invade Ukraine.
“I think he has not made up his mind yet,” de Hoop Scheffer told Al Jazeera on Friday.
“But he is so high up in the tree that climbing down without loss of face is almost impossible. And that is the reason that I think it is highly probable now that some form of action will follow suit.”
De Hoop Scheffer said the Russian president might not have expected the “unprecedented solidarity” within NATO and the EU.
White House Spokesperson Jen Psaki appeared to rule out preemptive sanctions against Russia over a possible invasion of Ukraine, saying that the economic measures are intended to dissuade Moscow from taking military action against its neighbour.
“Our collective view from our national security team is that sanctions are meant to be a deterrent,” Psaki told reporters. “If you put all the sanctions in place now, what is stopping them from invading?”
The United Kingdom has said that Russia’s GRU military intelligence agency was almost certainly involved in cyberattacks on Ukrainian banks this week.
“The decision to publicly attribute this incident underlines the fact that the UK and its allies will not tolerate malicious cyber activity,” the British foreign ministry said.
The United States is “ready” for fallout if Russia decides to “weaponise” its massive energy reserves in response to Western sanctions, a senior US official has said.
“If Russia decides to weaponise its energy supply, we’re ready,” White House Deputy National Security Advisor for International Economics Daleep Singh told reporters.
“We’ve been taking steps … to coordinate with major energy consumers, major energy producers to ensure that we have steady energy supplies and … stable energy markets,” he said.
US Congressman Seth Moulton has warned there would be various consequences if Russia decides to invade Ukraine.
“I think the situation is dire. I think we are standing at the prophases of the largest military action in Europe since WWII – a full-scale Russian invasion of a sovereign country,” Moulton told Al Jazeera from the sidelines of a security conference in Munich.
“If that happens, the consequences for the West, the consequences for the future of NATO, the immediate refugee consequences and the massive loss of life, will be something we haven’t seen in a very long time,” he said, adding that the window for diplomacy “remains open”.
The United States and its allies are “converging” on a final sanctions package if Russia invades Ukraine, White House Deputy National Security Adviser Daleep Singh has said.
The United Kingdom’s foreign ministry has said the country’s embassy in Ukraine was moving away from the capital Kyiv and it told British nationals to leave the country while commercial means of travel were still available.
The embassy office in Kyiv was relocating temporarily and staff were operating from an embassy office in the city of Lviv, the ministry said.
“Any Russian military action in Ukraine would severely affect the British government’s ability to provide consular assistance in Ukraine,” the ministry said. “British nationals should not expect increased consular support or help with evacuating in these circumstances.”
Europe is seeing the biggest buildup of troops since the Cold War, NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg has said, warning the size of the Russian force assembling far exceeded that needed for military drills.
“There can be no doubt that we have now the biggest concentration of military forces since the end of the Cold War in Europe,” he told German broadcaster ZDF, warning that Russia now has the capacity to invade without warning.
Germany will put its troops in NATO’s quick reaction force on higher alert, enabling them to deploy more quickly to protect Eastern European allies in case of an escalation of tensions with Russia, the defence ministry in Berlin has said.
The decision, taken in close cooperation with NATO’s highest military commander and allies, is a reaction to Russia’s conduct and meant to reduce the time needed to prepare for deployment in case of an activation of the NATO Response Force (NRF), the ministry said in a statement.
“The increased readiness to deploy enables NATO, in case of a further escalation by Russia, to guarantee appropriate reassurance in particular to our eastern European allies in order to protect allied territory,” the statement said.
Ukraine’s top security official Oleksiy Danilov has accused Russia of staging provocations in eastern Ukraine to try to provoke Ukraine’s military to respond, but added that Ukraine would stick to peaceful ways to defuse the crisis.
In a joint briefing, Minister for Integration of the Temporary Occupied Territories Iryna Vereshchuk said Russia was trying to force Ukraine into making concessions.
Danilov said Ukraine had no plans to liberate separatist-held territories by force, adding that a full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine was unlikely.
Any eventual sanctions imposed on Russia by the European Union should not include energy imports, Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi has said.
Draghi told reporters that the EU was studying various sanctions options if Russia pushes forward with a feared invasion of Ukraine.
Although Draghi said it was important to avoid sanctions on the energy sector, he added that the government was looking into other possible gas supplies should imports from Russia be hit due to any conflict.
Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine have said they planned to evacuate around 700,000 people to Russia from DPR.
Most DPR residents are Russian speakers and many have already been granted Russian citizenship.
Ukraine says the people who run the DPR are not separatists but Russian proxies, which the Kremlin has denied.
The US government has said the evacuation of civilians by Russia-backed rebels in eastern Ukraine was a “cynical” move by Moscow.
“Announcements like these are further attempts to obscure through lies and disinformation that Russia is the aggressor in this conflict,” a Department of State spokesperson told reporters on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference.
“It is also cynical and cruel to use human beings as pawns to distract the world from the fact that Russia is building up its forces in preparation for an attack.”
The most likely scenario for a Russian attack on Ukraine is not a fully-fledged invasion but rather a false flag operation or a coup, German Foreign minister Annalena Baerbock has said.
“The scenario of a full invasion might be possible but I am not sure this is really the most likely scenario,” she told the Munich Security Conference, speaking in English.
“I would be more afraid that the most likely scenario is a false flag [operation] or a coup or also other things like … if all the electricity will fall down here at this hotel, we would all go nuts and totally crazy,” she added, apparently alluding to a cyber-attack or an attack on Ukraine’s critical infrastructure.
The United Kingdom has said it was now advising against all but essential travel to Belarus, where tens of thousands of troops are staging exercises as part of drills with Russia.
The new UK travel alert was made by the Foreign Office.
Estonia delivered Javelin anti-tank weapons to Ukraine, the Estonian Ministry of Defence has said.
“At the moment, these missiles are more useful for Estonia’s security in defence of Ukraine rather than at a live fire exercise on an Estonian training area,” Lieutenant General Martin Herem, commander of Estonian Defence Forces, said in a statement.
“This is a small step by Estonia in support of Ukraine, but it is a real and tangible contribution to defence against Russian aggression.”
Ukraine’s foreign ministry has said that the peace and security of Ukrainian citizens are an “absolute priority”, adding that it rejects “accusations” from Russia that Ukraine is preparing an offensive in the Donbas region.
“We categorically reject Russia’s attempts to aggravate the already tense security situation. We remain steadfastly committed to the political-diplomatic settlement, and together with our partners we are making every effort to reduce tensions and keep the situation in line with the diplomatic dialogue,” the ministry said in a statement.
“We call on the international community – foreign states and international organizations – to immediately condemn the provocations of the Russian Federation and its occupation administrations in Donbas, which are undermining the process of political and diplomatic settlement.”
Russian-backed separatist authorities in eastern Ukraine have said that a car had been blown up near their government building in the centre of the city of Donetsk, the TASS news agency reported.
Russia’s Interfax news agency reported that nobody was hurt in the incident. Russia’s RIA news agency reported that there had been a large explosion.
US Vice President Kamala Harris told Baltic leaders that Washington is considering reinforcing their states militarily as the crisis grows, Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda has said.
“We were told that yes, at this moment they are discussing the question of reinforcing the Baltic States, because the threats require an answer both within the NATO format, and from our ally United States,” Nauseda said in a video statement from Munich.
“I think the decisions will come soon. I hope our defence ministers will be able to discuss the details in Vilnius.”
US President Joe Biden will make public remarks on tensions around Ukraine, the White House has said.
The address at 4:00pm (21:00 GMT) will be “an update on our continued efforts to pursue deterrence and diplomacy, and Russia’s buildup of military troops on the border of Ukraine,” the White House said.
Biden was due to hold a conference call with fellow NATO allies in advance of his remarks, officials said.
Al Jazeera’s James Bays, reporting from an annual security conference in Munich where much of the NATO allies are participating, said the secretary general still says that he “doesn’t believe there is going to be a war”.
“But clearly, you are hearing escalating rhetoric from both sides,” Bays said.
“Here in Munich, you’ve got the US … other NATO allies are here … The country that is absent is Russia at this year’s security conference,” he said, adding that everyone’s “concerned” about what is going to happen next.
President Vladimir Putin has ordered the emergencies minister to travel to southeast Russia to organise accommodation for residents leaving two self-proclaimed east Ukrainian breakaway republics in the Donbas region, the RIA news agency reported.
“Putin… instructed [the minister] to fly urgently to the Rostov region to organise … work to create conditions for accommodation, provide hot meals and everything needed, including medical care,” Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin’s spokesperson, was quoted as saying.
Al Jazeera’s Charles Stratford, reporting from the village of Novoselovka, in eastern Ukraine, says the separatists’ evacuation announcements are “a very worrying development”.
“Of course, we can in no way confirm that this necessarily means there will be a definitive escalation [in fighting] from the Russian-backed separatists,” he said.
“They have been saying now for days that they believe the Ukrainian side may be planning such a move, but the Ukrainians have staunchly denied that.”
The head of the LPR, one of two separatist-held regions in eastern Ukraine, has announced an evacuation of civilians.
“To prevent civilian casualties, I call on residents of the republic … to leave for the Russian Federation as soon as possible,” Leonid Pasechnik said in a statement.
Pasechnik’s move came after Denis Pushilin, head of the DPR, announced an evacuation of the other rebel-held region in eastern Ukraine.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said that everything Washington has seen happening on Russia’s border with Ukraine in the past 24 to 48 hours is part of a scenario of creating false provocations designed to elicit a response.
Speaking at the Munich Security Conference alongside German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, Blinken also cast doubt on Russia’s claims it was pulling forces back from positions near its neighbour.
“On the contrary, we see additional forces going to the border including leading-edge forces that would be part of any aggression,” he said.
German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock has defended her country’s decision not to send weapons, saying its World War II past meant it had a duty to seek other ways to secure peace.
Baerbock pointed to Berlin being Ukraine’s biggest donor as an example of its support for Kyiv while she addressed the Munich Security Conference alongside Blinken, who agreed that Western powers were working in a complementary, coordinated way.
“This is our strength – we are standing all together but using our different roles of support, with our different histories,” Baerbock said.
French President Emmanuel Macron has described the situation in eastern Ukraine as very worrying.
Macron told reporters at a European Union summit that he had heard reports coming in of several casualties in the region.
Putin has warned the situation in eastern Ukraine is “deteriorating” and called for Ukraine’s government to hold negotiations with Moscow-backed separatists in control of swaths of territory in the region.
Speaking at a news conference in Moscow alongside his Belarusian counterpart Alexander Lukashenko, Putin also said Russia was ready to follow a negotiation track with NATO on its security demands.
But he claimed that the US-led military alliance and Washington were not yet in a mood to engage on Moscow’s key concerns – namely that Ukraine never be permitted to join NATO and that the alliance cease all military activity in Eastern Europe.
The DPR’s separatist leader has said rebel authorities will begin evacuating civilians to Russia as fears of a large-scale conflict grow.
“From today, a mass centralised departure of the population to the Russian Federation has been organised. Women, children and the elderly are subject to be evacuated first,” Pushilin said in a video message shared via the Telegram messaging service.
He also accused Kyiv of planning an imminent attack on rebel-held territories. “The president of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskyy in the near future will give the order for soldiers to go on the offensive,” Pushilin said.
Heather Conley, the president of the German Marshall Fund of the US think-tank, says Putin is giving “all indications” he is prepared to launch an attack on Ukraine.
“He is laying the groundwork for the pretext, which has been the shelling along the line of contact in Donbas,” she said.
“He is waiting for the Ukrainian government to act to defend itself and we believe he will use that as the pretext for an invasion.”
United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has used his opening speech at the Munich Security Conference to call for a de-escalation of the crisis.
“With a concentration of Russian troops around Ukraine, I am deeply concerned about heightened tensions and increased speculation about a military conflict in Europe,” Guterres said.
“I still think it will not happen. But if it did, it would be catastrophic,” he added.
The Netherlands plans to send military equipment to Ukraine, including rifles, ammunition, radar systems and mine-detecting robots, the country’s government has said.
“We continue to aim for a diplomatic solution”, Foreign Minister Wopke Hoekstra said. “But at the same time, Ukraine must be able to defend itself against a possible Russian attack.”
As tensions ratchet up, footage posted online has become a valuable new tool for researchers analysing Russian military movements.
Read more here.
Russia’s buildup of military personnel threatening Ukraine probably totals up to 190,000 soldiers, the US ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has said.
“We assess that Russia probably has massed between 169,000-190,000 personnel in and near Ukraine as compared with about 100,000 on January 30,” Michael Carpenter told an OSCE meeting on the Ukraine crisis, which Russia did not attend, referring to border areas and the Moscow-annexed Crimean Peninsula.
“This is the most significant military mobilisation in Europe since the second world war.”
European nations are preparing sanctions against Russia that will be much harsher than those imposed after Moscow’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, Poland’s prime minister says.
“We are constructing a package of concrete sanctions, which are to be much stronger than those from 2014,” Mateusz Morawiecki told a news conference in Brussels, broadcast by Polish state-owned news channel TVP.
Lukashenko has said he will take part alongside Putin in overseeing forthcoming military drills, according to a report by Russia’s RIA Novosti news agency.
The Belarusian leader remarks came after he held talks with Putin in Moscow. He did not say which drills. Minsk and Moscow are currently holding large joint exercises in Belarus.
Putin is expected to oversee drills of Russia’s nuclear forces on Saturday.
Al Jazeera’s Dorsa Jabbari, reporting from Moscow, says Russia does not see its holding of forthcoming military drills involving Putin as an escalatory action.
“These are annual drills that are scheduled to take place, usually in October, but this year they have been moved forward as they have been in the past,” she said.
“So it’s not completely unusual, but of course, this is going to be seen [by Kyiv and the West] as yet another step that Russia is taking to further flex its military and nuclear capabilities … this is really the pinnacle of Putin’s show of strength at this time.”
Read more on the drills here.
Former Ukrainian Defence Minister Andriy Zagorodnyuk has told Al Jazeera he believes Putin will “try to get his hands on Ukraine” for as long as he is alive.
“This is his obsession and it seems he is determined to do it one way or another,” Zagorodnyuk said.
Read more here.
Moscow is alarmed by reports of intensified fighting in eastern Ukraine, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov has said.
“What is happening in the Donbas is very concerning news and potentially very dangerous,” he told reporters.
Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin has announced the planned sale of 250 Abrams tanks to Poland as the US moves to strengthen the defences of a key Eastern European ally amid the mounting tensions over Ukraine.
“This is the most modern version of the Abrams, and will provide Poland with a highly-advanced tank capability,” Austin told a news conference following talks in Warsaw, adding that the delivery timeframe was under discussion.
“It will also strengthen our interoperability with the Polish armed forces, boosting the credibility of our combined deterrence efforts and those of our other NATO Allies.”
US Vice President Kamala Harris will meet NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg at the Munich Security Conference later on Friday.
Harris will also meet the leaders of Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia. She will then continue her three-day visit to the conference with meetings with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and other world leaders on Saturday.
The future of NATO is at the centre of the standoff between Russia and the West over Ukraine.
Moscow wants guarantees that its neighbour, a former Soviet state, will be permanently barred from joining the US-led military alliance.
But Western leaders say the Kremlin cannot be allowed an effective veto on Kyiv’s foreign policy decisions and have defended NATO’s “open-door policy”.
Click here for five key things you need to know about the issue.
Kyiv estimates the probability of a major escalation of conflict with Russia to be “low”, Ukrainian defence minister Oleksii Reznikov has said.
“Our intelligence sees every move that could pose a potential threat to Ukraine. We estimate the probability of a large-scale escalation as low,” Reznikov told Ukraine’s parliament.
He also said Russia had amassed some 149,000 troops around Ukraine’s borders and that another several thousand were expected to arrive soon.
Putin will oversee forthcoming exercises by Russia’s nuclear forces involving the launch of ballistic and cruise missiles, Russian news agencies report.
“On February 19, 2022, under the leadership of the supreme commander-in-chief of Russia’s armed forces, Vladimir Putin, a planned exercise of strategic deterrence forces will be held, during which ballistic and cruise missiles will be launched,” the Russian defence ministry said in a statement carried by the agencies.
The ministry said it planned the manoeuvres some time ago to check the readiness of Russia’s military command and personnel, as well as the reliability of its nuclear and conventional weapons.
Tensions over the Ukraine-Russia crisis have been simmering for months, with diplomatic efforts to resolve the situation showing little sign of progress.
Click here for a timeline of the main events so far.
Spain’s foreign minister has called on the Kremlin to take steps to de-escalate the current crisis and offered Moscow assurances that NATO and the European Union pose no threat to Russia.
“Neither NATO nor the EU have a hidden agenda or hidden interests or anything that cannot be explained,” Manuel Albares said on radio station Onda Cero. “War is totally avoidable and unnecessary.”
Russia’s defence minister Sergei Shoigu will speak by phone with his American counterpart Lloyd Austin at the request of the US, Interfax cites the Russian ministry as saying.
Russia says it has started withdrawing more tanks and other armoured vehicles from areas near Ukraine’s border after running war games.
“Another military train carrying personnel and military equipment belonging to tank army units of the western military district returned to their permanent bases in the Nizhny Novgorod region after completing scheduled exercises,” the Russian defence ministry said in a statement.
Separately, it said 10 warplanes were being redeployed from the Moscow-annexed Crimean peninsula to airfields in other regions as part of drills.
The Ukrainian military says it has recorded 60 ceasefire violations by pro-Russian separatists over the past 24 hours, with one soldier injured.
In a report, the military said separatists opened fire on more than 10 settlements, using heavy artillery, mortars and a tank.
Baerbock says the Group of Seven (G7) is prepared to have “a serious dialogue” with Russia.
In a statement issued ahead of Friday’s key security conference in Munich, she said Berlin and its partners in the group – Canada, France Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom and the US – would use the event “to send out a message of unity”.
“We are ready for a serious dialogue on security for all,” the German foreign minister added. Russia is not scheduled to attend the annual conference, which runs until Sunday.
Several mechanised infantry units that took part in drills in Crimea have returned to their bases, Interfax reports, citing Russia’s defence ministry.
The troops had pulled back to the regions of Dagestan and Chechnya following the exercises, Interfax reported.
Russian-backed rebels in eastern Ukraine have accused government forces of shelling rebel-held territory.
The DPR said Petrivske village was targeted at about 03:30 GMT, according to Interfax.
Leaders of self-proclaimed breakaway republics in eastern Ukraine announce plan to evacuate residents to Russia.
Saturday’s exercise will involve practice launches of intercontinental ballistic missiles and cruise missiles.
Footage posted online has become a valuable new tool for researchers analysing Russian military movements.
Andriy Zagorodnyuk tells Al Jazeera Russian president will ‘try to get his hands on Ukraine’ as long as he’s alive.
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Latest Ukraine updates: US says Putin made decision to invade – Al Jazeera English
Russia-Ukraine news from February 18: Biden says Moscow has plan to attack Kyiv in ‘coming days’.