The latest on the Ukraine-Russia border crisis

By Tara John, Adrienne Vogt and Melissa Macaya, CNN

Updated 3:41 a.m. ET, February 19, 2022
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7:03 a.m. ET, February 18, 2022

Russia expelled second-most senior diplomat at the US embassy in a tit-for-tat measure, foreign ministry says

From CNN’s Uliana Pavlova in Moscow

Russia expelled the second-most senior diplomat at the US embassy in response to the expulsion of a Russian diplomat from the US, Russian foreign ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova said in a statement published late Thursday.

Last week, US Deputy Chief of Mission in Moscow Bart Gorman was expelled without any justification in what the Biden administration views as an escalatory move, the State Department said on Thursday. It happened while Russia and the US are in a tense standoff over Ukraine, which the US says it fears Moscow plans to invade.

Zakharova explained: “The American diplomat was indeed ordered to leave Russia, but strictly in response to the unreasonable expulsion of the Minister-Counsellor of our Embassy in Washington, despite his status as a leading official."

​​“We repeat once again: the mass expulsions of diplomats and the growing visa war is not our choice,” she said. 

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7:23 a.m. ET, February 18, 2022

US says Russia plans to manufacture justification for war

From CNN's Jeremy Herb, Veronica Stracqualursi, Kylie Atwood and Ellie Kaufman

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, with US Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield, left, during a UN Security Council meeting on Ukraine, on February 17, in New York.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, with US Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield, left, during a UN Security Council meeting on Ukraine, on February 17, in New York. (Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images)

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Russia was laying the groundwork to justify starting a war and preparing to launch an attack on Ukraine in the coming days, urging Moscow to change course at a tense United Nations Security Council meeting Thursday.

Blinken changed his travel plans so he could speak at Thursday's UN meeting, where the top US diplomat said he was detailing US intelligence about Russia's attempts to fabricate a pretext for an invasion in an attempt to "influence Russia to abandon the path of war and choose a different path while there's still time."

I am here today not to start a war, but to prevent one," Blinken said.

The United States says evidence at Ukraine's border shows that Russia is "moving towards an imminent invasion" and is not withdrawing troops, despite Moscow's claims. The comments from Blinken and other top US officials Thursday — including President Joe Biden's blunt warning that he believed an attack would happen "within the next several days" — marked an even greater sense of urgency from the Biden administration that Russia's actions indicated the Kremlin was moving forward with plans for war.

"Every indication that we have is that they are prepared to go into Ukraine, attack Ukraine," Biden told reporters as he left the White House on Thursday.

Russia once again dismissed the notion it was preparing to attack Ukraine as "baseless accusations."

In his address to the Security Council, Blinken laid out several steps the US expected Russia to take in the coming days in an attempt to justify military action in Ukraine. He said Moscow was likely to try to generate a pretext for the war, which could be a fabricated terrorist bombing inside Russia, the invented discovery of a mass grave or a staged drone strike.

"Russia may describe this event as ethnic cleansing or a genocide, making a mockery of a concept that we in this chamber do not take lightly," Blinken said.

Blinken said that top Russian officials were likely to hold urgent meetings before an attack that would include Russian bombings across Ukraine and cyberattacks. He added that the US believes Moscow has already selected targets that Russian tanks and troops would advance on, including Ukraine's capital, Kyiv.

Blinken acknowledged "that some have called into question our information," nodding to past problems with US intelligence in the run-up to the Iraq War. But he said the US would be relieved if its predictions are proven incorrect and Russia changes course.

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6:45 a.m. ET, February 18, 2022

Ukraine says two soldiers injured in continued fighting in the east

From CNN’s Tim Lister in Kyiv

The Ukrainian military says its forces have suffered two casualties as a result of “enemy fire” along the frontlines in eastern Ukraine.

The Joint Forces Operation announced that the two service members were wounded in action. Both are in hospital, it said, with one of the soldiers in a serious but stable condition.

It said that, as of 11 a.m. local time (4 a.m ET), Russian-backed separatists had carried out 33 violations of the ceasefire, including 22 incidents in which they fired weapons prohibited by the Minsk Agreements.

Some context: The war in eastern Ukraine started in 2014 and has claimed the lives of more than 14,000 people. Intense fighting in 2014 and 2015 left portions of eastern Luhansk and Donetsk in the hands of Russian-backed separatists. 

Those separatist-controlled 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 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. 

The Minsk II agreement of 2015 led to a shaky ceasefire agreement, and the conflict settled into static warfare along the Line of Contact that separates the Ukrainian government and separatist-controlled areas. The Minsk Agreements (named after the capital of Belarus where they were concluded) ban heavy weapons near the Line of Contact. 

6:33 a.m. ET, February 18, 2022

US defense secretary: "Still time for diplomacy” on Ukraine crisis

From CNN’s Nada Bashir

US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, right, inspects the honor guard with his Polish counterpart Mariusz Blaszczak during a welcoming ceremony in Warsaw, Poland, on February 18.
US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, right, inspects the honor guard with his Polish counterpart Mariusz Blaszczak during a welcoming ceremony in Warsaw, Poland, on February 18. (Leszek Szymanski/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

There is “still time for diplomacy” between Russia and NATO to find a resolution to the ongoing Ukraine crisis, US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said Friday. He cautioned however that the US and its allies “will be ready” should Russian President Vladimir Putin decide to invade Ukraine. 

The United States, in lockstep with our allies and partners, including Poland, has offered Mr. Putin a path away from crisis and towards greater security,” Austin said. 

“Whatever path he chooses, the United States and our allies and partners will be ready,” he added. 

Speaking during a joint press conference alongside his Polish counterpart Mariusz Blaszczak in Warsaw, Austin noted that the US continues to observe a buildup of Russian forces near the Ukrainian border. 

“Although Russia has announced that it is moving its forces back to garrison, we have yet to see that. In fact, we see more forces moving into that border region,” Austin told reporters. 
“We also see them continuing to prepare by doing things that you would expect military elements to do as they were preparing to launch an attack,” he added, noting that NATO has observed Russia moving and dispersing troops near the Ukrainian border, and increasing its logistical capabilities in the region. 

“The United States also continues to move material assistance to Ukraine to help the Ukrainians defend themselves. Fortunately, neither Poland or the United States are alone in dealing with this challenge,” Austin said. 

“The entire [NATO] alliance stands with Ukraine in supporting its sovereignty, its territorial integrity, and its right to choose its own path and relations with its neighbors and the rest of the world,” he added. 

6:31 a.m. ET, February 18, 2022

Polish defense minister thanks US counterpart for American troops, tanks, and jets

From Amy Cassidy

US soldiers arrive at Rzeszow-Jasionka Airport, in Poland, on February 16.
US soldiers arrive at Rzeszow-Jasionka Airport, in Poland, on February 16. (Wojtek Radwanski/AFP/Getty Images)

Poland’s National Defense Minister Mariusz Blaszczak thanked his US counterpart for deploying American troops to the country amid fears of Russian aggression during a joint press conference on Friday.

“Mr. Secretary, thank you very much for the American forces in Poland and also your declaration about [the] possibility to reinforce NATO and Poland, if required in future,” he said, speaking alongside US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.

He also thanked Austin personally for his role in reinforcing the Polish military with Abrams tanks and F35 fighter jets and highlighted the importance of strengthening NATO’s flank in eastern Europe.

Poland is in defense of our eastern border but also [the] eastern flank of NATO. That's why NATO engagement is so important for us. We face huge challenges," Blaszczak said.

He described Russia’s military buildup around Ukraine as “the biggest security crisis since the end of the Second World War.”

The "best answer" to the threats posed by Russia is NATO not being afraid and staging a deterrence, he said, adding: "We can see this policy being implemented when American troops are deployed in Poland.

“Unity of NATO is the best answer to aggressive behavior of Russia. Russian imperialist behavior requires from all allies activities that would deter Russia," he said.  

"American soldiers' arrival in Poland will support our defense. We will provide all necessary assistance to American soldiers as required.”

6:09 a.m. ET, February 18, 2022

Putin to attend planned military drills where ballistic and cruise missiles will be launched Saturday

From CNN’s Uliana Pavlova in Moscow

Russian President Vladimir Putin will attend planned exercises Saturday where ballistic and cruise missiles will be launched, the Russian Ministry of Defense said in a statement Friday. 

“On Saturday, a planned exercise of the strategic deterrence forces will be held under the leadership of Vladimir Putin. Ballistic and cruise missiles will be launched. 

“The exercises will involve the Aerospace Forces, the Strategic Missile Forces, the Northern and Black Sea Fleets,” the Russian Ministry of Defense said according to RIA. 

“The exercise of the strategic deterrence forces was planned earlier to test the readiness of forces and means,” it continued.

Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said Putin would oversee the drills because “such exercises and such launches are impossible without the head of state; you know about the famous black suitcase, the red button, and so on. When it comes to specifics, this is not public information.”

5:36 a.m. ET, February 18, 2022

Kremlin addresses the situation in Donbas, calling it "disturbing"

From CNN’s Uliana Pavlova in Moscow

The situation in Donbas is “very disturbing” and potentially “very dangerous,” Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said Friday during a regular phone call with journalists. 

What is happening in the Donbas, I repeat once again, is very disturbing news, which really causes a feeling of alarm and is potentially very dangerous,” Peskov said. 

It comes after both Ukrainian armed forces and separatists controlling parts of eastern Ukraine spoke of renewed shelling in the region.

Peskov said Thursday the reports of shellfire were a matter of “very, very deep concern” but added that there were no plans to discuss the matter with the Ukrainian government.

6:26 a.m. ET, February 18, 2022

Russian-US diplomacy stalls, with a shelled Ukrainian kindergarten a stark reminder of the lives at stake

Analysis by CNN's Nathan Hodge

A woman stands inside among debris after the reported shelling of a kindergarten, in the settlement of Stanytsia Luhanska, Ukraine, on February 17.
A woman stands inside among debris after the reported shelling of a kindergarten, in the settlement of Stanytsia Luhanska, Ukraine, on February 17. (Aris Messinis/AFP/Getty Images)

On any other week, the high-level diplomatic drama that unfolded in Moscow on Thursday should have been the main headline. But the images of a shelled kindergarten in eastern Ukraine shifted international focus to the Donbas region, where the world braced itself for signs that the simmering conflict there might escalate very seriously and catastrophically.

Thankfully, the shell that hit the Stanytsia Luhanska school took no lives. But they were a reminder of the very real stakes for people living near the Line of Contact that separates Ukrainian government forces from Russian-backed separatists.

For weeks, world leaders have been shuttling back and forth to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin and making high-level phone calls to try to put the brakes on a confrontation between Russia and the West over the Ukraine crisis.

Yet in Moscow, there's been no signs of a breakthrough, but a clear ratcheting up of tension. On Thursday afternoon local time, US Ambassador to Russia John Sullivan paid a visit to the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, where he received a long-awaited response from the Russian government to a written document delivered to Russia three weeks earlier.

The document made clear that the Russians laid full blame on the US and its allies for stoking the Ukraine crisis, even as evidence continues to mount that as many as 150,000 Russian troops are arrayed around Ukraine's borders.

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5:05 a.m. ET, February 18, 2022

Russian Defense Minister to speak with US counterpart, Russian state news agency reports

Olga Pavlova and Sarah Dean in Moscow

The Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu will hold a telephone call with his US counterpart Lloyd Austin on Friday, Russian state news agency TASS reported, citing the Russian Ministry of Defense.  

TASS reported the call is at the initiative of the American side. 

Austin is in Poland Friday, where he is expected to hold a joint news conference with his Polish counterpart Mariusz Błaszczak. 

This comes as Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko arrives in Moscow for talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin, according to Russian state news agency RIA Novosti. 

The pair will discuss a number of issues, including "security in the region and joint actions to ensure the national interests in the two countries," RIA cites the Belarusian president’s press service as saying. 

Russia and Belarus are currently holding ten days of joint military drills, which began in Belarus on February 10 and will end on February 20.