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The latest on the Ukraine-Russia crisis

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EU condemns use of ‘heavy weaponry and indiscriminate shelling of civilian areas’ in eastern Ukraine

The EU urged Russia to de-escalate by substantially withdrawing military forces from near its border with Ukraine and highlighted the “increase in ceasefire violations” along the line of contact in eastern Ukraine in recent days.

“The EU condemns the use of heavy weaponry and indiscriminate shelling of civilian areas, which constitute a clear violation of the Minsk agreements and international humanitarian law,” read the statement from the EU’s high representative on Saturday.

The EU statement went on to commend Ukraine’s “posture of restraint in the face of continued provocations and efforts at destabilization” and expressed concern at “staged events” that it said could be used as a “pretext for a possible military escalation.”

This statement comes after Ukrainian officials raised concerns about expected “provocations” in breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine, saying they expect Russia to be involved in false-flag operations there.

On Friday, Oleksiy Danilov, secretary of Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council, said the self-declared republics of Donetsk (DPR) and Luhansk (LPR) had alleged Ukrainian forces would launch an offensive against them – something Danilov called “completely untrue.”

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.

“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,” he said.

“We can’t say what exactly they are going to do, whether to blow up buses with people who are planned to be evacuated to the Rostov region, or to blow up houses, we don’t know,” he said, without providing any evidence of such plans.

Also on Friday, the foreign ministers of Germany and France said they do not see “any grounds” for DPR’s allegation, warning that “staged incidents could be misused as a pretext for possible military escalation.”

The EU also said it was witnessing intensified “information manipulation efforts” and expressed support for the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s Special Monitoring Mission, calling for the mission to be allowed to carry out its mandate without any restrictions.

“The EU sees no grounds for allegations coming from the non-governmental controlled areas of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of a possible Ukrainian attack,” it said. “The EU urges Russia to engage in meaningful dialogue, diplomacy, show restraint and de-escalate.”

The separatist-controlled areas in Ukraine’s Donbas region are known as the Luhansk People’s Republic and the Donetsk People’s Republic. 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.  

President Biden will convene National Security Council on Sunday, White House says

President Joe Biden is being briefed “regularly” on the situation in Ukraine by his national security team at the White House this weekend, press secretary Jen Psaki said in a statement.

On Saturday afternoon, Biden received an update on Vice President Kamala Harris’ meetings at the Munich Security Conference. On Sunday, Biden will convene his National Security Council to discuss developments in Ukraine, Psaki said. 

“President Biden continues to monitor the evolving situation in Ukraine, and is being updated regularly about events on the ground by his national security team. They reaffirmed that Russia could launch an attack against Ukraine at any time,” Psaki said in the written statement. 

Zelensky discusses 'need and possible ways of immediate de-escalation' with French president

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky speaks during a meeting with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson at a security conference in Munich, Germany, on February 19.

Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky said he had an “urgent” conversation with French President Emmanuel Macron in which he discussed the “need and possible ways of immediate de-escalation,” as the US and allies insist Russia is moving to conduct an attack on Ukraine.

“Had an urgent conversation with President @EmmanuelMacron,” Zelensky tweeted Saturday. “Informed about the aggravation on the frontline, our losses, the shelling of [Ukraine’s] politicians & international journalists. Discussed the need and possible ways of immediate de-escalation & political-diplomatic settlement.”

A group of journalists, including from the French agency AFP and CNN, came under mortar fire Saturday when accompanying Ukraine’s interior minister on the frontlines.

The call between Zelensky and Macron comes ahead of an expected conversation Sunday between Macron and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Putin and Macron will speak by phone on Sunday, Russia’s state-run news agency RIA Novosti said Saturday, citing the Kremlin pool.

“Macron has become Putin’s most frequent person to have conversation with in recent days (in recent times). The leaders of Russia and France will talk by phone over the weekend,” Ria Novosti said in a tweet.

Ukrainian soldiers "ready for any scenario" as mortar shells explode near front line, interior minister says

Ukraine's Interior Minister Denys Monastyrskiy, left, visits soldiers at a front line position in Novoluhanske, Ukraine, on February 19.

A CNN team and other journalists accompanying Ukraine’s interior minister on a tour of the front lines in eastern Ukraine came under mortar fire Saturday.

No one was injured.

Interior Minister Denys Monastyrskiy sought cover as several mortar rounds landed nearby. Shortly after the shelling, he gave interviews to international media in Novoluhanske. 

About a dozen mortar rounds landed within a few hundred meters of the group.

Speaking to CNN prior to leaving the area, Monastyrskiy said, “We spoke with soldiers on the ground. The spirit is incredibly brave and all guys are ready for any scenario.”

He said that it had been his first time under fire. He told reporters that he was in the car en route and they had to stop every time they heard shelling and lay on the ground.

At a news conference later in Kramatorsk, Monastyrskiy was asked by CNN what role Ukraine believed that Russian military advisers were playing in the fighting in the eastern part of the country. 

“We have information about the advance of the Russian army along our territory,” he said. “There is also information that certain units of the Wagner PMC have entered our territory. The purpose of the stay is to organize sabotage in our territory.”

Some background: Wagner is a private Russian paramilitary force that has long been associated with the separatists in eastern Ukraine and has also deployed to Libya, Syria and the Central African Republic, among other countries.

The Russian government denies any connection with Wagner or other private military contractors.

Over the past few days, the Ukrainian armed forces have reported a surge in heavy weapons fire against Ukrainian positions along what is known as the line of contact.  

The Ukrainian Ministry of Defense said that through 17:00 local time (10 a.m. ET) Saturday, “70 violations of the ceasefire regime were recorded by the Russian occupation forces, 60 of which by using weapons prohibited by the Minsk agreements.”

The ministry also said that two Ukrainian serviceman were killed and four wounded on Saturday.

The Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov repeated in a Facebook post Saturday that Ukraine had no plans to launch an offensive against the breakaway regions, as claimed by the leaders of the self-declared Luhansk and Donetsk republics. 

“We do not plan any offensives, but we will not allow the firing on the positions of our troops and human settlements with impunity,” Reznikov said.

UK foreign secretary: "Worst-case scenario" between Ukraine and Russia "could happen as early as next week"

British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, right, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, left, and Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne, second left, during a meeting at the Munich Security Conference in Germany, on February 19.

British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss accused Russia on Saturday of not being “serious about diplomacy” while warning that the “worst-case scenario could happen as early as next week.”

Truss also said Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s speech at the conference was “extremely sobering.”

“This is one of the most dangerous moments for European security that we’ve experienced since early in the 20th century. And we need to show unprecedented unity,” Truss said. “There were many people who would want to think hopefully about the situation, but I think we need to prepare for the worst-case scenario, and that worst-case scenario could happen as early as next week.”

Truss said the United Kingdom would stand in unity with its partners to support Ukraine.

“We need to be strong because that is the only thing that Russia understands. And I think we need to be strong in supporting Ukraine and not selling Ukraine out with concessions on sovereignty,” Truss said.

“Ukraine needs our support at the United Nations and at the OSCE and they also need our economic support because there is a real threat of economic destabilization. They need our defense support, and the UK is committed to continuing to supply that support, standing shoulder to shoulder with Ukraine,” she added.

The foreign secretary stressed that the UK is “resolute in imposing severe costs on Russia in the event of an invasion, including tough sanctions.”

“We will stop oligarchs being able to move their money internationally. We will stop them traveling, and we will make it tougher for Russian companies to tap into our capital markets. And we’re also going to make it harder for Russia to access sovereign debt markets,” she said.

Truss said the UK stands with Europe and the United States in being “completely united in support of Ukrainian sovereignty and self-determination.”

“This is not just an issue for Europe. This is an issue for the world, because if a sovereign nation is able to be invaded with no consequences, that sends a signal to other aggressors around the world,” she added.

“What this crisis has demonstrated is we are united. We are prepared to put tough sanctions in place in the event of an incursion. We are prepared to supply that defensive support to Ukraine,” Truss said.

Ukrainian chaplain finds himself wearing two robes as tension in the region rises

Roman Peretyatko, who serves as both a civilian and military chaplain, stands in his church, Archangel St. Michael, in Mariupol, Ukraine.

Mariupol is a city in southeastern Ukraine that literally straddles war and peace. Here, even the local chaplain wears two hats — or robes — military and civilian. 

Roman Peretyatko is the chaplain at the Archangel Michael church in Mariupol, but he is also the military chaplain with the Ukrainian Border Guard Service. For him, this eight-year war between Ukraine and Russian-backed separatists is not only professional but also personal.

At the “Old Crimea” graveyard in Mariupol, a vast cemetery on the outskirts of the city, a plot of graves is dedicated to the fallen soldiers in the war.

Plot 21, at the ‘Small Crimea’ cemetery in Mariupol, is a plot for fall soldiers. Flags mark their resting places. 

Peretyatko showed CNN the grave of a friend who he buried in 2015. Among the other tombstones, veteran Ruslan Vostovoit told us their deaths were needless, but that Russian President Vladimir Putin is responsible because “he wants to play his game.”

Back at the church, Peretyatko read the morning prayers where both he and locals are praying and serving peace.

Many locals come to him for solace.

“If they ask what’s going to happen next, we say it’s God’s will. We prepare for the worst and hope for the best,” Peretyatko said.

Roman Peretyatko stands over the grave of his friend whom he buried in 2015. As both a military and civilian chaplain, he makes both locals and soldiers feel at ease. 

US defense secretary says Russia could invade "in short order"

US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said he does not believe Russia’s increased military presence along the Ukraine border is a “bluff” and that Russian President Vladimir Putin could decide to attack Ukraine “in short order.”

Austin told ABC News in an interview taped Friday that Russia has developed the combat infrastructure along Ukraine’s border to “conduct a successful invasion.”

When asked about the possibility that Putin is increasing tensions without intending to actually invade, Austin said, “I don’t believe it’s a bluff.”

“I think he’s assembled the right kind…of thing that you need to conduct a successful invasion,” he said. “If they were redeploying to garrison, we wouldn’t be seeing the kinds of things in terms of not only combat power, but also logistical support, medical support, combat aviation that we’ve seen in the region.”

NATO partners should clarify timeline of when Ukraine can join alliance, Zelensky tells CNN

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky at the Munich Security Conference in Germany, on February 19.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky told CNN that NATO partners need to clarify a timeline upon which Ukraine can join the alliance. 

“Ukraine needs security guarantees,” he told CNN. “We are smart people, we are not narrow-minded. We understand there are lots of different risks because of NATO, there is no consensus around other allies, everyone is saying there is some distance that we need to go between Ukraine and NATO that we need to walk. All we are saying is: Tell us how much time does it take to complete this distance?” 

In earlier remarks to the Munich Security Conference, Zelensky posed the question as to why Ukraine was not being permitted to join NATO.

CNN also asked Zelensky about the use of US intelligence to dissuade Russian President Vladimir Putin from invading Ukraine. 

“I am grateful for the work that both of our intelligence has been doing. But the intelligence I trust is my intelligence. I trust Ukrainian intelligence who … understand what’s going on along our borders who have different intelligence sources and understand different risk based on intercepted data. … This information should be used,” the Ukrainian president said.

“We are not really living in delusion. We understand what can happen tomorrow … Just putting ourselves in coffins and waiting for foreign soldiers to come in is not something we are prepared to do,” he said 

Zelensky called for international partners to support Ukraine by investing in the country. 

“Strengthen our arms … our economy. Invest in our country. Bring your business in,” he said. “We are not panicking; we want to live our lives.”

US House Speaker Pelosi warns of US sanctions "never seen before" if Russia invades Ukraine

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi talks with Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), left, and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), center, at the Munich Security Conference in Germany, on February 19.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi warned on Saturday that the United States will impose sanctions “never seen before in terms of the intensity and timing” if Russia invades Ukraine.

“We’re not for any war,” said Pelosi, who is leading a congressional delegation at the Munich Security Conference. “Diplomacy, diplomacy, diplomacy — and that’s why we’re talking about sanctions in the event of an invasion. These are sanctions as if you’ve never seen before in terms of the intensity and timing.”

Asked if sanctions will be enough if Russia invades, Pelosi replied, “I do, because we have not seen sanctions as we’re going to see now.” 

“This has been ratcheted up because the stakes are so high and the lives that could be lost are so many. This isn’t about sanctions on trade violations, or sanctions on one thing or another. This is sanctions in response to hostilities that are deadly and unnecessary,” she said.

Pelosi also postulated as to what could be motivating Russian President Vladimir Putin, suggesting that he could take action to mark the 100th anniversary of the Soviet Union founding.

“I think that part of his fear, Putin’s insecurity, is that the people of Ukraine have embraced democracy, free-market system and the rest. And they like it and they will not choose the Russian system over theirs,” she said.

Forty members of Congress, both Democrats and Republicans, are attending the conference in a show of solidarity with NATO as Russian troops amass along the border with Ukraine. 

“In the face of that threat, NATO is more united than ever, ready to impose the most severe sanctions ever. We hope and pray that this will not be necessary,” said Rep. Adam Schiff, chair of the House Intelligence Committee. “The door to diplomacy remains open and will be open until and unless Putin slams it shut.”

“The rest of the world is watching us, and if we don’t act in unison to bring about the toughest sanctions that have ever been deployed, then other nations will feel free to subjugate their democratic neighbors,” Schiff said.

CNN’s Lindy Royce-Bartlett contributed reporting to this post.

Meeting of Ukraine-Russia representatives fails to occur in absence of Russian delegation

An attempt by international mediators to convene a meeting of Ukrainian and Russian representatives on the deteriorating situation in eastern Ukraine failed Saturday after the Russian delegation did not attend.

The meeting was due to be held under the auspices of the Trilateral Contact Group on Ukraine, which is chaired by a representative of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Ambassador Mikko Kinnunen.

“Unfortunately, and despite the worsening situation in the conflict related to eastern Ukraine, some participants linked their attendance to certain political preconditions. As a consequence, the meeting did not take place,” Kinnunen said.

“I regret this, as I am convinced that particularly in a situation like this, every opportunity should be used in order to defuse tensions and reduce the risk of unwanted consequences. For three days now, we have been observing a worrying degree of escalation, including military activities and inflammatory rhetoric,” he said.

Kinnunen said he joined with the OSCE’s leadership in deploring “the spreading of disinformation about an imminent military action by the Ukrainian government forces.”

“It is our responsibility to make sure that civilians do not have to pay the price for miscalculations or provocations. All participants are called upon to prevent a further deterioration of the humanitarian situation on both sides of the contact line and to fully respect international humanitarian law,” he said.

On Friday: The leaders of the self-declared Russian-backed regions in eastern Ukraine said that a Ukrainian military offensive was imminent.

They instructed civilians to leave the territories and ordered men between the ages of 18 and 55 to sign up for military service.

Separatist leaders posted videos announcing that they were organizing the mass evacuation of civilians to Russia. But a CNN analysis of the videos’ metadata indicates the footage was recorded days earlier.

Ukraine has repeatedly denied it has any plans to attack the breakaway regions.

France urges citizens in eastern Ukraine to leave immediately

A Ukrainian soldier patrols in the village of Novoluhanske, located in the Luhansk region, in Ukraine, on February 19.

France is advising citizens in eastern Ukraine to leave immediately, as well as all French nationals who are not in the country, for urgent reasons, according to a statement published by the French foreign ministry on Saturday.

“It is also recommended to all French nationals who are not in Ukraine for compelling reasons to leave the country,” the statement said. 

French citizens in the eastern Ukrainian oblasts of Kharkiv, Luhansk, Donetsk and the region of Dnipro are asked to leave the area “without delay.”

The statement also advised French citizens to postpone all travel to Ukraine.

Austrian Airlines and Lufthansa cancel flights into some areas of Ukraine

Austrian Airlines has canceled all flights to and from Kyiv and Odessa until the end of February due to the security situation in Ukraine, company spokesperson Anna Pachinger told CNN on Saturday.

The city of Lviv is not yet affected by the suspension, the spokesperson said.

German airline Lufthansa is also suspending flights to and from Kyiv.

The suspension affects all departures starting Feb. 21 until Feb. 28, according to a statement on the company’s website Saturday. The airline is still showing booking options available for flights Monday into Lviv, Ukraine.

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

The company said customers should leave mobile numbers in their bookings to be automatically informed of any changes.

Dutch airline KLM had previously announced it canceled flights to Ukraine until further notice.

Ukraine's president calls for a list of sanctions against Russia to be made public now

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has told CNN that sanctions on Russia should be made public before a potential invasion of Ukraine occurs.

Zelensky told CNN at the Munich Security Conference that he disagreed with the stance that sanctions should only be listed after an invasion by the Kremlin. 

“The question of just making it public … just the list of sanctions for them, for us to know what will happen if they start the war — even that question does not have the support,” he told CNN. 

“We had a discussion some time ago with one of the leaders of one [of] the leading countries and we were talking about the sanctions policy … We had a different vision on how sanctions should [be] applied when Russian aggression will happen,” he said. “So when you are asking ‘what can be done?’, well, lots of different things can be done. We can even provide you with a list. The most important is willingness.”

Zelensky added: “If you can’t even disclose what will happen to whom if the war starts … I doubt it will be triggered after it happens.”

Harris and Zelensky "agreed on the importance of diplomacy and de-escalation" in meeting, White House says

US Vice President Kamala Harris, right, and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky during the Munich Security Conference in Germany, on February 19.

US Vice President Kamala Harris and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky “discussed recent developments and assessments of Russia’s massive military build-up around Ukraine” during their meeting at the Munich Security Conference today, the White House said.

According to the readout:

“The vice president underscored the US commitment to Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. They discussed the united transatlantic approach if Russia further invades Ukraine, and the vice president outlined the swift and severe economic measures that have been prepared alongside our allies and partners. The vice president and President Zelenskyy agreed on the importance of diplomacy and de-escalation.”

The meeting lasted roughly 45 minutes, according to an administration official. 

If Russia were to invade Ukraine, “we will impose far-reaching financial sanctions and export controls,” Harris said in remarks in Germany. “We will target Russia’s financial institutions and key industries. And we will target those who are complicit and those who aid and abet this unprovoked invasion.”

Also, Harris held additional pull-aside meetings with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz on the margins of the conference, according to a White House official. 

“In each meeting, they discussed Ukraine, recent developments, and the united transatlantic response. In particular, they discussed the swift and severe economic measures that the US, the EU and others are poised to impose if Russia further invades Ukraine. They also discussed ongoing efforts at both deterrence and diplomacy,” the official said.

"One shelling, one cannon fire can lead to war," Ukrainian president tells CNN

Speaking to CNN, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said that “any provocations are very dangerous” when asked about a potential false flag pretext for war with Russia. 

“I think the most complicated question is that in Crimea, in the temporary occupied territory of the Donbas along Ukraine and Russia, there is 30-35,000 on the temporary occupying territories … so provocations are, indeed, very dangerous, if you have this number of troops. One shelling, one cannon fire can lead to war,” Zelensky warned. 

“This is what our partners believe, I mean the partners that are around us that have joined borders with us, we know the history of the Soviet Union and they do understand the kind of risks we are facing,” he added. “Poland, the Baltic states, Lithuania and Estonia, Latvia, Moldova, they know what that could lead to. So, we need to be very careful.”

The Ukrainian president went on to say casualties between Ukraine and Russia were more significant in 2014 but admitted that current tensions are “horrible,” adding that “it’s a tragedy for our nation, for our people.”

“This is the tragedy for Russians as well who used to have good relations with Ukraine,” he added. 

Some context: The latest US intelligence assessment indicates that Russia is continuing with preparations to invade Ukraine, according to a senior US official with direct knowledge and another source directly familiar with the intelligence.

The assessment — described as “bleak” by the senior official — indicates Russia could attack in the coming days. The US still expects any Russian invasion to be prefaced by a false flag operation, another US official said.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken, speaking at the Munich Security Conference on Friday, pointed to recent actions — including Russia adding “leading edge forces” to its troops on Ukraine’s border — to show how Russia’s coercive tactics towards Ukraine are already in play.

“Everything that we’re seeing, including what you’ve described in the last 24, 48 hours is part of a scenarios that is already in play of creating false provocations, of then having to respond to those provocations, and ultimately committing new aggression against Ukraine,” Blinken said.

Russia has created pressure points on three sides of Ukraine — in Crimea to the south, on the Russian side of the two countries’ border and in Belarus to the north.

Some history: In early 2014, mass protests in the capital Kyiv known as Euromaidan forced out a Russia-friendly president after he refused to sign a European Union association agreement.

Russia responded by annexing the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea and fomenting a separatist rebellion in Ukraine’s east, which seized control of part of the Donbas region. Despite a ceasefire agreement in 2015, the two sides have not seen a stable peace, and the front line has barely moved since.

Nearly 14,000 people have died in the conflict, and there are 1.5 million people internally displaced in Ukraine, according to the Ukrainian government.

CNN’s Jim Sciutto, Natasha Bertrand and Eliza Mackintosh contributed reporting to this post.

Ukrainian president tells CNN "we're not panicking" as Russia threat looms

President Volodymyr Zelensky during the Munich Security Conference in Germany, on February 19. 

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky told CNN in Germany that he came to the Munich Security Conference to ensure that a Ukrainian voice was in the room. 

“I’m the president; it’s important for all our partners and friends to not agree about anything behind our back,” he said. “We’re not panicking. We’re very consistent that we are not responding to any provocations.”

In earlier remarks before the interview, Zelensky warned the conference of a potential large-scale war.

“Will the world be able to hear me in 2022?” he asked.

Germany and Austria issue travel advisories for Ukraine, urge citizens to leave immediately

German and Austrian citizens have been urged by their governments to not travel to Ukraine and immediately leave if they are in the country.

“Travel to Ukraine is warned against. German citizens are urged to leave the country now,” read a notice issued by the German Foreign Office on Saturday. “Tensions between Russia and Ukraine have continued to rise in the face of massive presence and movement of Russian military units near Ukraine’s borders. A military confrontation is possible at any time.” 

The notice said that “should there be a Russian attack on Ukraine, there are very limited options of support to German citizens.”

The Austrian Foreign Office issued a similar advisory on Saturday, warning that “warlike action” could be a fatal threat, according to a statement published on its website.

As with Germany, consular assistance will not be available if required. 

Here's why Donbas is at the center of the Ukraine crisis

Even as Russian forces mass on Ukraine’s border, the spotlight this week has swung back to the rumbling low-intensity war in eastern Ukraine and its possible role in setting the stage for a broader conflict.

Over the past three days, there has been an upsurge in shelling along several parts of the front lines. The Ukrainians say shelling by the Russian-backed separatists is at its highest in nearly three years, and for their part the separatists allege the use of heavy weapons by Ukrainian armed forces against civilian areas.

On Thursday, a kindergarten in Ukrainian-controlled territory less than 5 kilometers from the front line was hit. On Friday and Saturday, the Ukrainian authorities reported a further spike of shelling by heavy weaponry, which is banned from within 50 kilometers of the front lines by the Minsk Agreements.

Ukrainian authorities say there were 60 breaches of a ceasefire on Thursday, many of them by heavy weapons.

The leaders of the two breakaway pro-Russian territories — which call themselves the Luhansk and Donetsk People’s Republics — claimed the Ukrainians are planning a large military offensive in the area. On Friday, they organized mass evacuations of civilians to Russia, while instructing men to remain and take up arms.

Ukrainian officials repeatedly deny any such plans. On Friday, the head of Ukraine’s National Security Council, Oleksiy Danilov, said: “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.”

Read more here.

European Union sanctions against Russia are ready, German foreign minister says

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said on Saturday that a package of sanctions against Russia has been “wrapped up over the last few days and weeks.” 

She added that the European Union has also “made it clear that is not just the scenario of troops being moved into the country that will trigger these sanctions,” speaking at a news conference on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference.

Baerbock made the comments following a meeting with representatives of the European Union. She said different scenarios were being prepared for, adding “we’re doing whatever we can to make sure that these scenarios don’t become reality.”

“It’s not always the harshest reaction that is the best weapon or cuts hearts best. So, we have to take a closer look at the situation arising and assess it on that basis. As I said the worst that could happen would be more interference. That would be the worst scenario really, and we will do whatever we can to avert this,” Baerbock said.

US vice president calls the situation in Ukraine a "decisive moment"

US Vice President Kamala Harris and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky pose for photographs during the Munich Security Conference, in Germany on February 19.

In a photo spray with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, Vice President Kamala Harris once again referred to the situation in Ukraine as a “decisive moment.” 

Harris said she was using the meeting as a “chance to reiterate the position of the US” saying the US takes the sovereignty of Ukraine seriously. 

The vice president said she was looking forward to hearing “directly from Zelensky” in the meeting.

Harris reiterated that the US would impose economic sanctions on Russia if they invade Ukraine.

The two did not answer questions from the press.

Biden view of Putin’s decision based on intel assessments, but wasn’t planned beforehand

US President Biden’s determination that his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin has decided to invade Ukraine was made in part based on the latest intelligence assessments showing nearly half of Russian forces massed on the borders have moved into attack position, administration officials and people familiar with the matter said. 

Still, Biden had not initially been planning to announce during his speech Friday that he believed Putin made up his mind, and the revelation was not included in his prepared remarks. He only made his view known afterward when questioned by a reporter, answering at first only in the affirmative and declining to expand. 

He also made clear there is a diplomatic path to resolve the crisis, even as US officials believe it is growing narrower as signs mount of an imminent invasion. 

Defense officials said Friday the number of battalion tactical groups had swelled to approximately 120-125, and that Russian forces were continuing to move toward the border. 

Biden’s view of Putin’s decision-making reflected those developments and the broader assessments of the intelligence community, an administration official said. The President cited “a significant intelligence capability” for his view of Putin’s thinking, which he’d previously said was something of a mystery. 

American officials have said Putin’s intentions have been difficult to discern because he keeps his plans hidden from even his senior-most advisers, revealing his decisions only when they are made. 

In the wake of Biden’s remarks, a source from France’s presidential palace told journalists Friday that no leader knows for sure whether Russia will invade Ukraine, but there is a risk.

“No leader said tonight that the invasion will or will not take place; we’re talking about risk,” the Élysée Palace source said, following a call between the leaders of the US, UK, France, Germany, Canada, Italy, Poland, Romania, NATO and the European Union.

 “We’re not in the head of President Putin,” the source continued. 

Ukrainian women study crisis preparation and self-defense skills in Kyiv

Victor Kraevskiy demonstrates basic self-defense moves during the hands-on training.

When Ukraine’s Women’s Guard put out an invitation for a survival and self-defense course, 700 women signed up. But the room at the Kyiv town hall where the training was scheduled to take place on Saturday could only hold up to 300 people, so more dates were added.

The women studied everything from how to pack an emergency bag, where to get necessary supplies and how to stop bleeding.

At one point, one of the instructors, Oleksandr Biletskiy, started talking about survival in a city that has been cut off from basic services, telling the attendees that now was the time to make plans with their neighbors.

“Decide how to divide tasks. Who will cook, who will take care of the elderly, who will be with the kids,” Biletskiy, a military expert, said.

Natalia Skryabina said attending the course helped her to understand the kind of mindset she’d need in a crisis.

He went into the importance of keeping good hygiene in field conditions: decide where the toilet will be, keep your trash in bags, and, in the worst case scenario, be prepared to bury the dead quickly. At one point, he said that in a crisis situation, burying people vertically can save space and time.

Natalia Skryabina, a 36-year-old animation artist, came to the training because she wanted to be prepared for a crisis situation, be it a natural disaster or a war.

“We can’t predict what happens on the other side. Here in Kyiv, we still feel like we’re very far away from it, but people in the east are talking differently, because they have already experienced it, they know anything can happen,” she said.

“Eight years ago, nobody expected that something like that could happen,” she said, referring to the war in the east and Russia’s decision to annex Crimea.

Around 240 women attended the survival training at Kyiv’s town hall on Saturday.

Skryabina said that after a friend told her about the course, she read notes made by people who had previously attended.

“But this taught me more about the way of thinking in crisis. How to be prepared and how to stay calm,” she said, adding that she was using the training to make sure she was prepared for any eventuality. “I am going to buy a fire extinguisher now,” she said.

During the hands-on self-defense training, two women practiced using their hands to avert a potential aggressor.

“Never make a fist. It doesn’t work, you’ll break your fingers, use your palms,” Victor Kraevskiy, one of the instructors, told the women assembled in the ornate hall.

Women attending the course look at items that might be useful in crisis situations.

Yulia Kesaieva contributed to this report.

“Peace in Europe can only be preserved if borders accepted as they are," says German Chancellor Scholz

Peace in Europe can only be maintained if borders are accepted “as they are, if no one aims to change them,” German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said in a speech at the Munich Security Summit Saturday.

Scholz’s comments echoed similar sentiments made in earlier speeches by NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg and President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen.

“We may not be naive, that is crucial. Therefore, we have to see what can be seen and not overlook it. The deployment of troops along the Ukrainian border is clear, as well on Russia’s territory, as well as in Belarus and the forces pulled together at sea. All capacities for a military aggression against Ukraine are evident and that remains a fact.

“At the same time, it remains our task, may they be very small, to use doors leaving space to open for negotiations,” Scholz said, adding that “we want to engage but we want to negotiate on the basis of our principles.”

“Diplomacy will not fail because of us,” he said. “As much diplomacy as necessary, that is the ambition.”

France says there is a risk of invasion in Ukraine, but no leader knows for sure

France says that no leader knows for sure whether Russia will invade Ukraine, but there is a risk, a source from France’s presidential palace told journalists Friday.

“No leader said tonight that the invasion will or will not take place, we’re talking about risk,” the Élysée Palace source said, following a call between the leaders of the US, UK, France, Germany, Canada, Italy, Poland, Romania, NATO and the European Union.

“We’re not in the head of President Putin,” the source continued. 

France’s remarks came shortly after US President Joe Biden on Friday said he is now convinced Russian President Vladimir Putin has made the decision to invade Ukraine, but emphasized that room for diplomacy remains.

The Élysée Palace source also rebuffed claims from Russia accusing Ukraine of genocide in the Donbas region, remarking: “There is no Ukrainian attack against the Donbas.”

The source said the threat by France and its allies to impose “massive sanctions” on Russia in the event of a Russian invasion of Ukraine referred only to an incursion into the areas under the control of the Kyiv administration.

Whether and what form of sanctions would be imposed for an incursion into disputed regions in eastern Ukraine already controlled by Russian backed separatists is not clear.

The leaders on the call agreed on the need to keep the “channels of dialogue with Moscow open,” sharing a collective belief that they still have “the possibility to dissuade Vladimir Putin from proceeding,” the source said.

French President Emmanuel Macron is set to speak with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky Saturday and Putin Sunday as part of his efforts to “try everything to stop the worst from happening,” the source said. 

US Defense Secretary says it's apparent Russia has made a decision and is moving into position to conduct an attack

From left: US Secretary for Defense Lloyd J. Austin, Estonia's Minister of Defense Kalle Laanet, Latvia's Minister of Defense Artis Pabriks, and Lithuania's Minister of Foreign Affairs Gabrielius Landsbergis, pose for photographers during a meeting at the Defense Ministry in Vilnius, Lithuania, on February 19.

Speaking in Vilnius, Lithuania, US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said it was apparent that Russia had made a decision and was moving into the right positions to conduct an attack on Ukraine. 

“They’re uncoiling and now poised to strike,” Austin said.

Austin reiterated earlier comments from US President Joe Biden that Russian President Vladimir Putin had decided to invade after weeks of the US saying he hadn’t made a decision.

Austin and others in the US continue to say diplomacy is still possible, and he added, “I believe we should try until the very last minute, until it’s not possible.”

Some background: On Friday, President Biden said he believed Russian forces intended to attack Ukraine “in the coming week” or sooner, and that an attack will target the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv.

“As of this moment, I am convinced he’s made the decision,” Biden said during remarks at the White House.

Separatist leaders pre-recorded their video appeals, metadata shows