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The latest on the Ukraine-Russia border crisis

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What we covered here

  • US President Joe Biden said he’s “convinced” Russian President Vladimir Putin has decided to invade Ukraine, but he noted that diplomacy is not yet off the table.
  • The President’s comments come as the White House blames Russia for recent cyberattacks against Ukraine and a new “bleak” US intel assessment indicates that Russia is continuing preparations to invade.
  • The US secretary of state warned the UN that Russia is planning to manufacture a justification for an attack.
  • Officials say violation of the ceasefire in eastern Ukraine continued through Friday. It comes after Ukrainian armed forces and separatists controlling parts of eastern Ukraine reported renewed shelling in the Donbas region on Thursday, where video and images confirmed by CNN show that a kindergarten was hit by a shell.

Our live coverage has moved. Head here for the latest updates on the tensions between Ukraine and Russia.

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Satellite images show build-up of Russian helicopters within miles of Ukraine

Satellite images show a new helicopter unit and battle group has been deployed to Millerovo Airfield in Russia, some 16 kilometers away from the Ukrainian border.

New satellite imagery from Maxar shows a substantial increase in the deployment of Russian helicopter forces close to the Ukrainian border.

Maxar assessed that a new helicopter unit and battle group deployment consisting of tanks, armored personnel carriers and support equipment have deployed to Millerovo airfield, situated 16 kilometers from the border with Ukraine. 

Millerovo is close to the part of Ukraine’s border that is controlled by pro-Russian separatists of the self-declared Luhansk People’s Republic.

Slightly further north, Maxar said that a new helicopter unit (more than 20 helicopters) has deployed near Valuyki, approximately 27 kilometers east of the border with Ukraine.

As seen in a previous imagery package, nearly 20 helicopters remain deployed near Belgorod, approximately 35 kilometers east of the border with Ukraine.

Videos uploaded to social media, and vetted by CNN, show that attack helicopters are present at both airfields near Valuyski and Belgorod, Russia.

In Crimea, there are now 70 helicopters, more than 60 were first observed earlier this week, at a disused airbase at Lake Donuzlav on the Black Sea coast remain in place.

The increase comes despite a statement earlier this week from the Russian Ministry of Defense saying that some military units would be moved away from Ukraine and return to their home bases. Russia even published videos of trains moving a number of tanks as evidence that it was following through on its statement.

In the past week a combination of satellite imagery and social media videos have shown advanced Russian tanks, howitzers and ballistic missiles moving towards the Ukrainian border, especially to the north and north-east.

And satellite imagery earlier this week showed troops, military vehicles and helicopters at the Zyabrovka airfield near the city of Gomel in Belarus, around 25 kilometers from the Ukrainian border.

Ukrainian official: It's impossible to know "what exactly is going on in the thoughts of" Vladimir Putin

Ukrainian presidential advisor Mykhailo Podoliak has told CNN “it is impossible to say with certainty what exactly is going on in the thoughts of the Russian leader.”

Podoliak’s comments come on the heels of President Biden saying he’s convinced Russian President Vladimir Putin has made the decision to invade Ukraine.

Podoliak went on to note that Biden’s stance is undoubtedly based on information from the intelligence community, saying that it’s “not a matter of agreeing or disagreeing with the statements.”

However, said Podoliak, “one should pay attention to the more important meaning in the words of President Biden: he confirmed that there is still a chance for diplomacy. And we will use this chance.”

Another senior Ukrainian official told CNN that Ukrainian President Zelensky is still planning to travel to Munich and return on the same day. But he did note that the “security situation will be reassessed in morning.”

US House Speaker says Kyiv mayor "conveyed the urgent concerns of the innocent people of Kyiv"

Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, attends the 58th Munich Security Conference in Munich, Germany, Friday, February 18.

While at the Munich Security Conference, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said she met with Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko, who “conveyed the urgent concerns of the innocent people of Kyiv under threat of a Russian invasion.”

The House Speaker said her Congressional delegation “reiterated America’s support for the people of Ukraine and opposition to Putin’s aggression.”

Pelosi said in a statement that the delegation, “has made and will continue to make clear: America remains unwavering in our commitment to swift, severe consequences if Russia chooses to invade Ukraine.”

“Under President Biden, the transatlantic alliance is stronger and more united — and we will continue to be together in our response,” the statement said.

You can read the House Speaker’s statement in its entirety here.

Nearly half of Russian forces in attack position, US defense official says

Nearly half of Russian forces surrounding Ukraine are in attack position, according to a US defense official familiar with the latest assessment. 

The number of battalion tactical groups has swelled to approximately 120-125. A battalion tactical group usually comprises 1,000 troops.

The official said the Russian military has continued to move forces toward the border, and within the last 48 hours, the number of forces in attack position has reached 40-50%.

At the same time, the Russian destabilization campaign has begun, the official said, with Russia accusing Ukraine of genocide in Donbas, conducting false flag operations, and more.

On Friday, a military vehicle exploded in the city of Donetsk in eastern Ukraine near the Government House building, the headquarters of the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic. 

An advisor to Ukraine’s Interior Minister, Anton Gerashchenko, called it a “staging and a provocation.”

Earlier Friday: The Donetsk People’s Republic and the Luhansk People’s Republic, two self-governed regions in eastern Ukraine controlled by Russian-backed separatists, organized the evacuation of civilians to Russia. 

Russia promised each refugee would receive 10,000 rubles (around $130) upon arrival in the Rostov region of the country.

Biden says it's up to Ukraine's Zelensky if he leaves the country for security conference this weekend

US President Joe Biden on Friday said it is up to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky whether he will attend this weekend’s security conference in Germany.

“That’s a judgment for him to make,” Biden said when asked by reporters following remarks he gave on the current state of tensions between Ukraine and Russia.

Biden added, “I’ve spoken with Zelensky a dozen times, maybe more, I don’t know. In the pursuit of a diplomatic solution it may — maybe be the wise choice. But it’s his decision.”

CNN has previously reported that Biden administration officials have privately urged Zelensky that they do not believe it is a good idea for him to leave Ukraine and visit Munich on Saturday.

Biden says uptick in Russian disinformation could be pretext for war 

US President Joe Biden said there has been an uptick in Russian disinformation that could be used as a pretext for an invasion into Ukraine.

Speaking at the White House, Biden said reports pushed to the Russian public that Ukraine is planning to launch an attack in separatist-controlled Donbas lacked evidence. He said those claims defied logic.

“This is also in line with the pretext scenario that the United States and our allies and partners have been warning about for weeks,” Biden went on.

He said the US had seen an uptick in violations of the ceasefire in eastern Ukraine.

Biden believes Putin has decided to invade Ukraine

US President Joe Biden says he believes Russian President Vladimir Putin has decided to invade Ukraine. 

Biden previously stated he did not believe the Russian leader had made up his mind, but acknowledged his insights into Putin’s thinking were limited.

In previous appearances over the past month, Biden has suggested that Putin’s thinking was a mystery to almost everyone, indicating even top Russian advisers were in the dark as to his intentions.

Friday’s comments marked a significant shift in the President’s view, and a far more definitive stance on his counterpart’s plans.

After his initial answer, Biden was pressed again whether he was convinced Putin had determined to go ahead with an invasion. 

“Yes,” Biden said.

Asked if that precluded diplomacy to defuse the crisis, Biden said it did not.

“Diplomacy is always a possibility,” he said. 

And questioned as he was preparing to depart the Roosevelt Room why he believed “he is considering that option at all,” Biden said only, “We have a significant intelligence capability.”

US President Biden warns of "severe sanctions" on Russia if invasion occurs but says it is "not too late" to negotiate

US President Joe Biden once again warned Russia of possible consequences if an invasion of Ukraine occurred, but said “it is not too late to de-escalate and return to the negotiating table.”

“The bottom line is this. The United States and our allies and partners will support the Ukrainian people. We will hold Russia accountable for its actions. The West is united and resolved. We’re ready to impose severe sanctions on Russia if it further invades,” Biden said.

“Russia can still choose diplomacy. It is not too late to de-escalate and return to the negotiating table,” Biden said.

Biden noted that Russia agreed that US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov should meet on February 24 in Europe.

“But if Russia takes military action before that date, it will be clear that they have slammed the door shut on diplomacy,” Biden warned.

“They will have chosen war and they will pay a steep price for doing so. Not only from the sanctions that we and our allies will impose on Russia, but the more outrage the rest of the world will visit upon them,” he continued.

Biden says US believes Russia intends to attack Ukraine "in the coming days"

President Biden said the US believes that Russian troops intend to attack Ukraine “in the coming week, the coming days.”

“We have reason to believe the Russian forces are planning and intend to attack Ukraine in the coming week, the coming days,” the President said Friday speaking from the White House. “We believe that they will target Ukraine’s capital Kyiv — a city of 2.8 million innocent people.”

Biden went on to condemn such an attack, in the process pledging to continue supporting Ukraine.

“We’re calling out Russia’s plans loudly and repeatedly … we’re doing everything in our power to remove any reason Russia may give to justify invading Ukraine and prevent them from moving. Make no mistake: if Russia pursues its plans, it will be responsible for a catastrophic and needless war of choice,” Biden said.

“The United States and our allies are prepared to defend every inch of NATO territory from any threat to our collective security as well. We also will not send troops in to fight in Ukraine, but we will continue to support the Ukrainian people,” the President added.

Biden addresses the "disinformation being pushed out" by Russia regarding Ukraine

US President Joe Biden addressed the flurry of misinformation Russia has been releasing as the threat of invasion hangs over Ukraine.

In remarks from the White House Friday afternoon, Biden said he’s “seen reports of a major uptick in violations of the ceasefire by Russian-backed fighters attempting to provoke Ukraine in the Donbas.”

“For example, a shelling of Ukrainian kindergarten yesterday which Russia has falsely asserted was carried out by Ukraine. We also continue to see more and more disinformation being pushed out to the Russian public, including Russian-backed separatists, claiming that Ukraine is planning to launch a massive offensive attack in the Donbas,” Biden said. “Look, there is no evidence [of] these assertions, and it defies basic logic to believe the Ukrainians would choose this moment, with well over 150,000 troops arrayed on its borders, to escalate a year-long conflict.”

Biden’s remarks follow reports from Ukrainian armed forces and separatists controlling parts of eastern Ukraine of shelling in the Donbas region on Thursday.

Video and images confirmed by CNN show that a kindergarten was hit by a shell.

NOW: Biden speaks on Russia-Ukraine crisis

President Joe Biden speaks about Ukraine in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, on Friday, Feb. 18, in Washington.

US President Joe Biden is speaking now from the White House on the latest developments in the crisis between Russia and Ukraine, as his White House is now blaming Russian intelligence for a massive cyberattack on Ukraine.

The President last spoke about the crisis on Thursday as he departed the White House for a trip to Ohio, when he said there is “every indication” a Russian invasion of Ukraine “will happen in the next several days,” and the threat of an attack is “very high.”

Biden’s remarks come amid escalating tensions as US Ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe Michael Carpenter warned earlier Friday that the US has assessed a significant Russian military buildup near Ukraine just in the last two weeks.

Before his remarks, Biden spoke with allies in North America and Europe. He will hold a phone call with the leaders of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Romania, the United Kingdom, the European Union and NATO to discuss the ongoing crisis.

US officials say Russia has a list of senior Ukrainian officials it would remove if it invades

Multiple US and western government officials tell CNN that the US has intelligence that Russia has drawn up lists of current political figures that it would target for removal in the event it invades Ukraine and topples the current government in Kyiv.

Sources familiar with the intelligence say the target lists are part of Russian planning to replace the current administration in Kyiv with a more Russia-friendly government, bolstering a previous disclosure by the British government identifying pro-Moscow figures it said Russia planned to install. 

The most likely outcome for those politicians and public figures whom Moscow has targeted to be ousted in the event Kyiv falls, these sources say, is jail or assassination. 

“We’ll see what kinds of choices these people will be given, but a lot of them will be jailed or killed,” said one source familiar with the intelligence. “I think for most it will depend on how cooperative these people are when the time comes and the circumstances in which they are captured or taken.”

“If it’s in public” — in front of cameras — “that’ll be different very different from somebody who they corner in the middle of nowhere,” this person added. 

CNN has not seen the underlying intelligence intercepts or the documents that name the targets or the purported collaborators and their supposed positions in a pro-Russia administration.

And for now, the threat remains contingent on invasion, even as Russia has massed between 169,000 and 190,000 personnel in and around Ukraine, including Russian-led forces in breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine. 

American officials have continued to escalate warnings that Russia is prepared to launch an invasion in Ukraine in the coming days — including a full-scale march on Kyiv — but they caution that they don’t believe that Russian President Vladimir Putin has issued the order yet. Putin’s exact plans remain stubbornly difficult to determine. Western intelligence officials have closely watched for signs that Russia has prepared a friendly government-in-waiting as a key indicator of its intentions. 

“As we’ve seen in the past, we expect Russia will try to force cooperation through intimidation and repression,” said a separate US official. “These acts, which in past Russian operations have included targeted killings, kidnappings/forced disappearances, detentions, and the use of torture, would likely target those who oppose Russian actions, including Russian and Belarusian dissidents in exile in Ukraine, journalists and anti-corruption activists, and vulnerable populations such as religious and ethnic minorities and LGBTQI+ persons.”

CNN has reached out to the Ukrainian government for comment. 

Foreign Policy first reported on the details of US intelligence on the Russian planning.  

US Vice President Harris met "several times" with US secretary of state in Munich today to coordinate strategy

Vice President Kamala Harris attends a meeting with Estonia's Prime Minister Kaja Kallas, Latvian President Egils Levits, and Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda, during the Munich Security Conference, Friday, February 18, in Munich.

US Vice President Kamala Harris met “several times” Friday with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to coordinate strategy, according to a senior administration official.

The official previewed Harris’ speech Saturday to the Munich Security Conference, telling pool reporters that, “you’ll see her speech fit into the message we’ve been sending from the start of this crisis, that we are prepared for either contingency.”

“We have been putting the world on notice of what we’re afraid of and seeing from the Russians, these provocations, that we fear that they could use as a pretext for invading Ukraine and the past hours or days, unfortunately, we have seen some of those,” the official added.

The official also laid out the core themes the VP will emphasize:

  • “Strength through unity” 
  • That “core [democratic] principles are at stake”
  • “We remain even at this late hour open to diplomacy”
  • She will be “clear about the costs on Russia if they invade …[including] financial sanctions and export controls
  • “We believe we will emerge stronger and Russia will emerge weaker”

The official said Harris still plans to meet with Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz following the speech, and will also conduct some “pull asides” with other leaders.

Zelensky is scheduled to attend the conference on Saturday for meetings, but the US has told Zelensky it is up to him whether to leave Ukraine this weekend to attend.

NATO chief says Europe is seeing biggest concentration of military forces since end of Cold War

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg says there is now the biggest concentration of military force in Europe since the end of the Cold War.

“There can be no doubt that we have now the biggest concentration of military force in Europe since the end of the Cold War in Europe,” Stoltenberg told German broadcaster ZDF on Friday.

He said Russia has capabilities with forces and support elements in place and that it “can launch an attack with no warning time.” 

“We don’t know the intention, the plans of Russia,” he said.

Stoltenberg said there has been no sign of de-escalation from Russia and that “on the contrary, we have seen the buildup continues.”

White House warns of the extensive sanctions Russia could face if it invades Ukraine

Deputy National Security Advisor for international economics and Deputy Director of the National Economic Council Daleep Singh, left, speaks as Deputy National Security Advisor for Cyber & Emerging Tech Anne Neuberger listens during a White House daily briefing on Friday, February 18.

A White House official warned of the sanctions Russia could face for an invasion of Ukraine, telling reporters Friday that the administration is in the process of “converging on the final package,” which contains “the most severe measures we’ve ever contemplated against Russia.”

“There’s no question in my mind that (Russian President Vladimir) Putin is not playing the winning hand,” Daleep Singh, deputy national security advisor for international economics and deputy director of the National Economic Council, said during the White House news briefing.

Outlining what steps will be taken in the event of an invasion, Singh said that “the cost to Russia would be immense, both to its economy and his strategic position in the world.”

“Our financial sanctions have been designed to impose overwhelming and immediate costs to the largest financial institutions and state-owned enterprises in Russia. They’ve been calibrated to maximize alignment with our allies and partners. They’re flexible to allow for further escalation or de-escalation, depending on how Putin responds,” Singh said, adding that they’ll avoid targeting the Russian people or spill over into the US and global economy. “We’re also prepared to impose powerful export controls as part of our response package. Both financial sanctions and export controls deny something to Russia that it needs and can’t get from anywhere other than the United States or our allies and partners.” 

Russia would become “a pariah to the international community” if Ukraine is invaded, Singh said.

“It will become isolated from global financial markets, and it will be deprived of the most sophisticated technological inputs. Russia would face the prospect of intense capital outflows, mounting pressure on its currency, surging inflation, higher borrowing costs, economic contraction and the erosion of its productive capacity. Taken together, Russia will become more dependent on countries that cannot compensate for its losses. This would be a strategic defeat for Russia pure and simple,” he continued.

Singh told CNN that the measures being considered “are not designed to reduce or impair Russia’s ability to supply energy to the world.”

He added that the administration believes “it would be a strategic mistake for Putin to weaponize his energy supply.

Singh also warned that if China makes accommodations to Russia in the event of Western sanction, it would send “a very bad signal for its vision of the world” and would have a “profound” impact on its reputation with Europe.

US tells Zelensky it's his decision if he wants to leave Ukraine for Munich conference, White House says

The US has told Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky it is up to him whether to leave Ukraine this weekend to attend a security conference in Germany.

Zelensky is scheduled to attend the Munich Security Conference on Saturday for meetings, including with US Vice President Kamala Harris. US officials have said a Russian invasion of Ukraine could occur at any moment.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki was asked whether any US officials had conveyed concern to Zelensky about leaving his country amid the current crisis. She declined to delve into details of “private diplomatic conversations.”

“It’s a decision that’s up to him to make,” she said. “That is what we convey privately as well. But regardless of what decision he makes, he will have the support of the United States.”

Russian government responsible for recent cyberattacks against Ukraine, White House says

The US government said Friday that the Russian government is responsible for recent cyberattacks on Ukrainian banks this week as tensions in the region continue to escalate. 

“We believe that the Russian government is responsible for widescale cyber-attacks on Ukrainian banks this week. We have technical information that links the Russian Main Intelligence Directorate, or GRU, as known GRU infrastructure was seen transmitting high volumes of communication to Ukraine based IP addresses and domains,” said Anne Neuberger, deputy national security advisor for cyber and emerging technology. 

This attribution was unusually fast for the US government, and Neuberger noted that Russia has previously benefitted from US delays in attributing Russian hacking operations. 

“Russia likes to move in the shadows and counts on a long process of attribution so it can continue its malicious behavior against Ukraine in cyberspace, including pre-positioning for its potential invasion,” Neuberger told reporters in the White House briefing room. 

Neuberger added that the US has shared the “underlying intelligence” with Ukraine and other European allies. She warned that these attacks could lay the groundwork for more aggressive attacks ahead of a ground invasion. 

“While of limited impact, this recent spate of cyberattacks in Ukraine are consistent with what a Russian effort could look like in laying the groundwork for more disruptive cyberattacks accompanying a potential further invasion of Ukraine sovereign territory,” Neuberger said. 

She added that the US has been preparing for this possibility since November and that the US government has “intensified” its support of the Ukrainian government. 

Neuberger added that they do not believe there are no specific or “credible” cyber threats to the US homeland, but that the government remains prepared and has been communicating with the private sector. 

Biden will speak with NATO allies about Russia-Ukraine crisis ahead of afternoon remarks

Service members of the Ukrainian Air Assault Forces partake in tactical drills at a training ground in an unknown location in Ukraine, on February 18.

Ahead of his remarks this afternoon, US President Biden will speak with allies in North America and Europe, according to the White House.

He will hold a phone call with the leaders of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Romania, the United Kingdom, the European Union and NATO to discuss the ongoing crisis. The call is closed to press.

Then, at 4 p.m. ET, Biden will give “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.

The President on Friday also called in to a meeting US Vice President Kamala Harris was holding with members of Congress who are attending the Munich Security Conference in Germany, according to a person in the room, and reiterated the work the US and allies have been doing to try to prevent a Russian invasion of Ukraine.

He also updated the members on the situation at Ukraine’s borders.

Ukrainian officials say they expect provocations from Russia in separatist regions

Ukrainian officials say they expect Russia to be involved in “false flag” operations in the breakaway regions of eastern Ukraine in an effort to create a pretext to launch an invasion.

Oleksiy Danilov, secretary of Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council, said the self-declared republics of Donetsk and Luhansk had alleged Ukrainian forces would launch an offensive against them.

“All this is completely untrue,” he said, adding that this was an attempt at provocation. “There is a great danger that the representatives of the Russian Federation who are there will provoke certain things. They can do things that have nothing to do with our military.”

Danilov did not provide evidence but added, “We can’t say what exactly they are going to do.”

Some context: Danilov was speaking soon after an explosion in Donetsk wrecked a vehicle close to the headquarters of the Donetsk People’s Republic.

The cause of the blast was unclear.

“To date, we do not see a full-scale invasion of our country. Today we can say that targeted provocations by the Russian Federation are possible,” Danilov said.

At the same news conference, Iryna Vereshchuk, minister of Reintegration of Temporarily Occupied Territories, appealed to civilians in the Luhansk and Donetsk regions to cross into Ukrainian controlled territory.

Italian prime minister says sanctions on Russia should not include energy sector

Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi said on Friday that any potential sanctions imposed on Russia by the European Union should not include energy imports, adding however that “mechanisms were being studied by which Italy can continue to be supplied with gas from other sources,” should that of Russia fall.

Draghi said that in the course of the discussions with its European allies, Italy had “pointed out that sanctions must be concentrated on sectors that must be as narrow as possible, without including energy.” 

“The sanctions may be proportionate to the type of attack and not preventive,” the Italian prime minister added. “Some sanctions would impact Italy more and other countries less,” Draghi continued, adding that energy sanctions “would have a greater impact on countries that use more gas.”

“Germany uses coal, gas and still has some old nuclear power plants in operation that are gradually being shut down but are still active. France has nuclear power and some gas. Italy has only gas and has no nuclear power and no coal. Therefore, it is clear that it is more exposed,” Draghi told journalists. 

Asked about his future visit to Moscow, Draghi said: “There is no date yet, but it should be shortly.”

Italy’s Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio announced Thursday that Draghi would meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin soon, adding that he was working with his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov to arrange a date for the meeting.

Draghi told journalists that Putin “hinted at the possibility of continuing to guarantee gas supplies to Italy and possibly increasing them, if necessary,” in a phone conversation between the two leaders.

“This must of course also be considered in the light of the commitments and relations with other allies and what the effects of the sanctions will be. So it is a commitment that I greatly appreciate, but which today remains a commitment that needs to be evaluated according to how the situation develops,” he concluded.

Here's what the 2015 Minsk Agreement is and what it could mean for the Ukraine-Russia crisis

As world leaders scramble to find a diplomatic solution over the ongoing Russia-Ukraine tensions, talk has turned to the 2015 Minsk Agreement as a possible way out of the crisis.

The agreement, the second of its kind (and the one that matters), was hammered out in the Belarusian capital in a bid to end what was then a bloody 10-month conflict in eastern Ukraine.

But Minsk II has never been fully implemented, with its key issues still unresolved.

As the current Ukraine-Russia crisis has unfolded, the agreement has also gained prominence as both sides claim there has been continued violations of the ceasefire in eastern Ukraine.

Here’s what you need to know about the agreement:

Who are the key players? A rare meeting between Russian, Ukrainian, German and French leaders in February 2015 sought to bring peace to areas of Ukraine that had been taken over by pro-Russian separatists the year before. Those areas, in Ukraine’s Donbas region, became known as the Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR) and the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR). The Ukrainian government in Kyiv asserted the two regions were in effect Russian-occupied.

The talks also aimed to work towards a political settlement for the region.

The result, Minsk II, was signed by representatives of Russia, Ukraine, the separatist leaders and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). It was subsequently endorsed by a UN Security Council resolution.

What were the conditions of the agreement? A ceasefire. In February 2015, there was still heavy fighting in some areas between Ukrainian forces and Russian-supported rebels, with the Ukrainians taking heavy losses.

The withdrawal of heavy weaponry from the frontlines.

That the OSCE — a 57-member security organization that also includes the US and Canada — monitor the frontlines.

A dialogue on local elections in areas occupied by pro-Russian rebels.

The restoration of full economic and social links between the two sides, so that, for example, pensions could be paid.

That Ukrainian government control be restored over the border with Russia.

The withdrawal of all foreign forces and mercenaries.

Constitutional reform that would provide some autonomy to the regions of Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region no longer under the central government’s control.

Read more here.

Ukraine and US say vehicle explosion in separatist-controlled city was staged

The remains of a military vehicle following an explosion is seen in a parking lot outside a government building in central Donetsk, Ukraine, on February 18.

Ukrainian and US officials said a vehicle explosion in a Russian-backed separatist stronghold was a staged attack designed to stoke tensions in eastern Ukraine.

Video from the city of Donetsk in eastern Ukraine showed a fire in a parking lot and badly damaged military vehicle, close to the headquarters of the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) – one of the areas of the country controlled by Russian-backed separatists.

An official channel of the DPR said that “Around 19:00, a car was blown up in the parking lot near the Government House building. The blast wave was heard by the whole city. The Ministry of Emergency Situations went to the place of the explosion.”

Images and video showed emergency services at the scene and a badly damaged vehicle identified by CNN as a Russian-made jeep. There’s no way to verify what caused the damage to the vehicle or the fire.

“We think that this is a staging and a provocation,” Anton Gerashchenko, advisor to the Ukrainian Interior Minister, told CNN on WhatsApp. A US State Department spokesperson described it as a “false flag operation” and said incidents like the vehicle explosion and calls from separatist leaders to evacuate because of alleged Ukrainian aggression represented “further attempts to obscure through lies and disinformation that Russia is the aggressor in this conflict.”

More context: US officials and other Western leaders have repeatedly warned that Russia may stoke violence in eastern Ukraine to create a pretext for a full-fledged invasion.

This comes after Monitors of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) reported a sharp escalation in ceasefire violations along the frontlines dividing Ukrainian and separatist forces in eastern Ukraine since Thursday.

The OSCE said as a result of “allegations of civilian casualties and damage to civilian properties and infrastructure sites over the past 24 hours, the Mission rerouted a number of its patrols in Donetsk and Luhansk regions, including to a kindergarten and a railway station in Stanitsya Luhanska (government-controlled, 16km north-east of Luhansk).”

Both sides in the conflict accused the other of ceasefire violations Thursday.

The war in eastern Ukraine started in 2014 and has claimed the lives of over 14,000 people. Intense fighting in 2014 and 2015 left portions of eastern Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts in the hands of Russian-backed separatists. The DPR is not recognized by any government, including Russia.

CNN’s Kylie Atwood and Jennifer Hansler contributed reporting from Washington and Munich, respectively.

Ukrainian officials deny any plans for military action in eastern part of country

A building damaged in the clashes between Ukrainian army and pro-Russian separatists, in Avdiika, Donetsk Oblast of Ukraine on February 17.

The chief of Ukraine’s armed forces, Lt. Gen. Valerii Zaluzhnyi, joined other officials in an effort to speak out and reassure people in the breakaway eastern regions that the Ukrainian military has no plan to launch an offensive.

“The statements about the alleged offensive operation of the Armed Forces of Ukraine and the forceful scenarios of liberation of the temporarily occupied territories are not true,” he said.

“Ukraine does not plan or conduct offensive operations. The only acceptable option for us to de-occupy our people and territories is political and diplomatic,” he said.

“An offensive operation in Donbas will inevitably cause civilian casualties, that is why such scenarios are not even considered,” Zaluzhnyi said in a Facebook message.

Separately, the Ukraine foreign ministry said: 

“Ukrainian nationals reside on both sides of the contact line. Their peace, security and well-being are an absolute priority for Ukraine.  
Allegations that the Ukrainian government intends to launch an offensive operation in the temporarily occupied territories of Donetsk and Luhansk regions are divorced from reality. 
Ukraine is also not conducting or planning any sabotage acts in Donbas.
We categorically reject the attempts of Russia to aggravate the already tense security situation. We remain firmly committed to politico-diplomatic settlement and, together with our partners, maximise efforts to reduce the tension and keep the situation in line with diplomatic dialogue.
In contrast, we observe the Russian Federation unfolding its campaign to disseminate massive disinformation, increasing shelling of Ukrainian positions and civilian infrastructure, using the weapons banned by the Minsk Agreements, and escalating the security situation.”

On Friday, leaders in separatist-controlled areas announced they would be evacuating their citizens.

Some more background: The separatist-controlled areas in Ukraine’s Donbas region are known as the Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR) and the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR). The Ukrainian government in Kyiv asserts the two regions are in effect Russian-occupied. The self-declared republics are not recognized by any government, including Russia. The Ukrainian government refuses to talk directly with either separatist republic.