Ukraine crisis: Biden ‘convinced’ Russia plans invasion but diplomacy …

6.07pm EST 18:07

Biden: It’s Zelenskiy choice whether to leave the country, but ‘wise choice’ is to stay

At this evening’s press conference, Joe Biden said that it was up to Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy to choose whether or not he would leave the country for a conference in Germany tomorrow, but that “in the pursuit of a diplomatic solution, it may be the wise choice” for him to stay.

Privately, administration officials have urged Zelenskiy to stay in Ukraine given their concerns about an imminent invasion, CNN reported.

Kylie Atwood (@kylieatwood)

Biden admin officials have privately urged Zelensky that they don’t believe it is a good idea for him to leave Ukraine & visit Munich tomorrow given concerns about a possible incursion, according US officials & a sr Ukrainian official tell us, @Phil_Mattingly & @mchancecnn.

February 18, 2022

5.55pm EST 17:55

Russia will ‘stand up’ for compatriots in eastern Ukraine, parliamentary speaker says

Another sign of the political air: Russia’s parliamentary speaker, Vyacheslav Volodin, said on his Telegram channel today that “Russia does not want war,” but that it will “stand up” for compatriots in Donetsk and Lugansk if their lives are threatened, TASS, a major Russian news agency, reported.

Ragıp Soylu (@ragipsoylu)

BREAKING — The Speaker of Russian Duma says Ukraine is provoking the start of a big war.

Says, Russia doesn’t want war “but if there is a threat to the lives of citizens of the Russian Federation and compatriots living in the DPR and LPR, then Russia will stand up for them”

February 18, 2022

5.41pm EST 17:41

First responses: Biden’s speech on Russia’s possible ‘extreme and needless war of choice’

Some early responses after Biden’s press conference this evening: Is Biden hoping that Putin will want to prove him wrong on the imminence of an invasion?

Ilya Lozovsky (@ichbinilya)

It seems like the last chance left is that Putin will be tempted to own Biden by not invading and proving him wrong. Maybe that’s a last chance Biden is knowingly giving him?

February 18, 2022

Like Biden, French officials are saying the path for diplomacy is nevertheless open.

Catherine Norris Trent (@cntrentF24)

Biden says he’s convinced Putin has made the decision to move into Ukraine.
After a video call w allies, French officials also sounded deeply concerned, although not as blunt as Biden: saying they are v concerned, this is a grave moment, but the path for diplomacy is nevertheless open.

February 18, 2022

5.24pm EST 17:24

Biden: Russian claims that Ukraine is planning a Donbas attack ‘defies basic logic’

Joe Biden said that the reports in Russian media “claiming Ukraine is planning to set afloat a enormous offensive attack in the Donbas” were “disinformation.”

“It defies basic logic to believe that the Ukrainians would choose this moment, with well over 150,000 troops arrayed on its borders, to escalate a yearlong conflict,” the US president said.

Biden highlighted Russian media’s “phony allegations of a genocide taking place in the Donbas,” in addition as the shelling of a Ukrainian kindergarten yesterday, which he said Russia had “falsely asserted was carried out by Ukraine.”

These were all part of the Russian “playbook to set up a false justification to attack Ukraine,” Biden said, which the US and allies have been warning about for weeks.

Biden praised the “restraint” and “judgement” of Ukrainian troops, who “have refused to allow Russia to bait them into war.”

Biden said the US was “calling out Russia’s plans loudly and repeatedly, not because we want a conflict, but because we are doing everything in our strength to remove any reason that Russia may give to justify invading Ukraine.”

Updated at 5.46pm EST

5.11pm EST 17:11

Biden is ‘convinced’ Putin has decided to move into Ukraine, but says there’s nevertheless time for diplomacy

President Joe Biden said that he is “convinced” that Vladimir Putin has “made the decision” to move into Ukraine, an invasion that might come in the next days, based on US intelligence.

But it was not too late to reverse that decision, Biden warned: “Russia can nevertheless choose diplomacy. It is not too late to deescalate and return the negotiation table.”

Biden said the US and its European allies were united in their resolve to impose “harsh” economic sanctions on Russia in response to an attack on Ukraine, and that Russia would also confront the “moral outrage” of the rest of the world should it choose war.

“There are many issues that divide our nation and our world, but standing up to Russian aggression is not one of them. Americans are united…the complete free world is united,” he said.

“Make no mistake, if Russia pursues these plans, it will be responsible for a extreme and needless war of choice.”

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

He cited hundreds of millions of dollars in past US military sustain to Ukraine.

Updated at 5.51pm EST

4.51pm EST 16:51

Reports of explosion causing a pipeline fire in eastern Ukraine

A part of a gas pipeline near Luhansk, one of the main cities in Ukraine’s breakaway vicinity of People’s Republic of Luhansk, caught fire late on Friday after a blast, Russian news agencies reported, citing correspondents on the ground.

The pipeline was hit by “a powerful explosion,” Interfax news agency reported, citing a local natural gas supplier.

The new report of a pipeline fire comes as the US and others have been warning of “false flag” incidents that could be used by Russia as a pretext for an attack on Ukraine.

Pro-Russian Telegram channels are claiming the fire is the consequence of Ukrainians blowing up a gas pipeline near Luhansk.

Ilya Lozovsky (@ichbinilya)

Pro-separatist Telegram channel claims Ukrainians have blown up a gas pipeline near Luhansk.

February 18, 2022 OSINTtechnical (@Osinttechnical)

This video is reportedly from the explosion in Luhansk

February 18, 2022

3.45pm EST 15:45

In other news, the foreign ministers for Germany and France released a joint statement today warning about Russia constructing pretext to justify a military escalation.

German minister Annalena Baerbock and French minister Jean-Yves Le Drian released the statement shortly after 3:00 pm eastern time, with the two ministers stating towards the latter half of the statement:

We have noted the announcement of the leaders of the self-proclaimed “People’s Republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk to evacuate the vicinity’s residents to Russia as a so-called precautionary measure in anticipation of a possible Ukrainian attack. We do not see any grounds for these allegations and urge Russia to use its influence over the self-proclaimed republics to encourage restraint and contribute to de-escalation.

We are concerned that staged incidents could be misused as pretext for possible military escalation.

Richard Walker (@rbsw)

Joint statement by German and French foreign ministers warns of Russia constructing a pretext for military escalation ->

February 18, 2022

3.30pm EST 15:30

A White House official confirmed again today that cyberattacks against Ukraine came from Russia.

During a briefing, Deputy National Security Advisor for Cyber and Emerging Technology Anne Neuberger said that the US believes Russia is behind the cyberattacks targeting at the minimum two major edges in Ukraine and Ukraine’s Ministry of Defense earlier this week.

Steve Herman (@W7VOA)

Deputy National Security Advisor for Cyber and Emerging Technology Anne Neuberger tells @WhiteHouse briefing US believes government of #Russia responsible for wide-extent cyber attacks on edges in #Ukraine this week.

February 18, 2022

The British government issued a similar confirmation: “The UK Government judges that the Russian Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU) were involved in this week’s distributed denial of service attacks against the financial sector in Ukraine,” a spokesperson for the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office said.

“The attack showed a continued disregard for Ukrainian sovereignty. This activity is however another example of Russia’s aggressive acts against Ukraine.”

Updated at 3.53pm EST

3.07pm EST 15:07

British embassy to move to Lviv ‘temporarily’ – Foreign Office

The UK Foreign Office announced today that it will be temporarily relocating its Ukrainian embassy in light of heightened tensions between Russia and Ukraine.

Ambassador of the United Kingdom to Ukraine Melinda Simmons is seen during the presentation of the Partnership for a Strong Ukraine Foundation (PSUF) in Kyiv, Ukraine on 02 Feb 2022. Ambassador of the United Kingdom to Ukraine Melinda Simmons is seen during the presentation of the Partnership for a Strong Ukraine Foundation (PSUF) in Kyiv, Ukraine on 02 Feb 2022. Photograph: Ukrinform/REX/Shutterstock

The UK will be moving the embassy from Kyiv to Lviv, located near the Poland border, while also urging British nationals in Ukraine to leave while commercial options were nevertheless obtainable.

“Any Russian military action in Ukraine would severely affect the British government’s ability to provide consular assistance in Ukraine,” said the department.

The UK is one of the latest western countries to move their embassy with Melinda Simmons, the British ambassador to Ukraine, gaining praise for her decision to keep in Kyiv with a small staff and help British nationals leave the country.

Here’s the Guardian’s Patrick Wintour analyzing the impact of Simmon’s past decision to keep in Kyiv:

Her decision to stay put, along with most EU embassies, will be popular with Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy. He is deeply unhappy that some western embassies – including the US, Canada and Australia – decided to move from Kyiv to Lviv or other cities in the west of the country. At a joint briefing on Monday Zelinskiy said he was determined to prevent an exodus of his political and business class, and questioned their logic. “There is no western Ukraine,” he said. “There is Ukraine; it is integral. Because if, God forbid, something happens, it will be everywhere.”

Melinda Simmons, the British ambassador to Ukraine, has been winning plaudits for her decision to stay in post in Kyiv, working with a much-reduced staff to help UK citizens out of the country and to manage the steady flow of British dignitaries nevertheless flying to the country to show their solidarity.

Read Wintour’s complete article here.

Updated at 3.30pm EST

2.46pm EST 14:46

According to a tweet from Ukraine’s defense ministry, Ukraine Military Intelligence has information that Russian special sets are possibly planting bombs in buildings in Donetsk, Ukraine.

Camilla Schick (@CamJourno)

Another possible false flag pretext…
H/t @margbrennan — Ukraine Defense ministry appears to be saying here that Russia has planted “explosive devices” in Donetsk buildings

February 18, 2022 Shaun Walker (@shaunwalker7)

So, the thing where US intel was screaming loudly and Ukraine was, like, everyone chill.

That is no longer the case.

February 18, 2022

“These measures are aimed at destabilizing the situation in the temporarily occupied territories of our state and creating grounds for accusing Ukraine of terrorist acts,” said Ukraine’s defense ministry in a later tweet.

Defence intelligence of Ukraine (@DI_Ukraine)

These measures are aimed at destabilizing the situation in the temporarily occupied territories of our state and creating grounds for accusing Ukraine of terrorist acts

February 18, 2022

In a final tweet, the Ukraine’s defense ministry advised those living in Donetsk to stay home and not use public transit.

2.30pm EST 14:30

The first buses carrying people who are evacuating from eastern Ukraine have arrived in Russia’s Rostov vicinity late Friday according to Russia’s state news agency TASS, reported Reuters:

The self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic announced a mass evacuation of the vicinity’s residents to Russia earlier on Friday after an increase in shelling.

Separatist forces and Ukrainian government forces blamed each other for the spike in tensions.

2.12pm EST 14:12

In other news, here is a read out of US Vice president Kamala Harris and Baltic leaders, discussing their readiness capabilities if Russia were to move into Ukraine, including position adjustments from the US and NATO.

U.S. Embassy Riga (@USEmbassyRiga)

Vice President Harris and Baltic leaders discussed their readiness for a rapid response should Russia further move into Ukraine, including by adjustments to U.S. and NATO force posture. @VP emphasized that commitment to #NATO Article 5 is ironclad.

February 18, 2022

1.46pm EST 13:46

More from Germany’s foreign minister Annalena Baerbock, who said all options” would be on the table if Russia launches an attack on Ukraine, including scrapping the Nord Stream 2 pipeline deal intended to bring Russian gas to Germany.

Western powers are united in their preparation of “unheard of sanctions” on Russia, Baerbock said in a speech at the Munich Security Conference.

She said that Germany is ready to “pay a high economic price”, adding:

That’s why all options are on the table for me, also Nord Stream 2.

Separately, Germany’s defence ministry said Berlin will raise the deployment readiness of German troops in the Nato response force, enabling them to deploy more quickly to protect eastern European allies in case of an escalation of tensions with Russia.

In a statement, the ministry said the decision is a reaction to Russia’s conduct and meant to reduce the time needed to prepare for deployment in case of an activation of the Nato Response Force (NRF).

Updated at 1.58pm EST

1.15pm EST 13:15

The announcement that civilians will be evacuated from Russia-backed areas in eastern Ukraine is a “cynical” move by Moscow, a US State Department spokesperson said.

Speaking to reporters at the Munich Security Conference, the State Department official said:

Announcements like these are further attempts to conceal by lies and disinformation that Russia is the aggressor in this conflict.

It is also cynical and cruel to use human beings as pawns to distract the world from the fact that Russia is building up its forces in preparation for an attack.

There is no evidence that Ukraine is planning an offensive in the vicinity, despite Russia’s claims to the contrary.

1.09pm EST 13:09

The West must gear up for years of heightened Russian pressure on Ukraine and on Europe as a whole, whether or not Moscow launches an attack on Ukraine in the coming days, Latvia’s chief minister Krišjānis Kariņš said.

In an interview with POLITICO, Kariņš said Vladimir Putin’s goal was to suppress Ukraine’s independence and bring it back into “the Russian fold.”

The Russian president could pursue his strategy of “neo-imperialism” not just by a direct military attack but also by ramping up efforts to destabilise the Ukrainian economy and society, Kariņš warned.

Kariņš said:

In the best-case scenario — best-case meaning no war — we will be facing long-term pressure from Putin on Ukraine and on Europe as a whole.

Latvia borders Russia and Belarus, where Moscow has massed tens of thousands of troops as part of a huge buildup of forces around Ukraine.

Kariņš said he had told his European Council counterparts to prepare themselves for the long term, in any case the coming days may bring.

What I argue with my colleagues in the Council is that we have to be prepared for probably a long haul — not two weeks or two months or already two years … probably it will be much longer. And we have to start thinking in terms of the long game.

In this long game, we are interested in supporting the Ukrainian state, supporting its independence, its democracy, helping it with reforms, helping it financially, helping it resist the outward pressures of Moscow.

1.00pm EST 13:00

Our correspondents, Shaun Walker in Vrubivka, and Andrew Roth in Moscow, report on how warnings by leaders of pro-Russian proxy states of an imminent assault by Ukrainian forces are fueling fears that Moscow is seeking to create a pretext for invasion.

The leaders of pro-Russian proxy states in eastern Ukraine announced a mass evacuation of citizens to Russia on Friday evening, amid fears Moscow is manufacturing tension in the vicinity to provide a pretext for renewed military intervention in Ukraine.

After the evacuation announcement, warning sirens sounded in Donetsk and other cities in the two Moscow-backed statelets, presumably due to an upcoming Ukrainian military assault on the vicinity.

On Friday evening the Russian-separatist authorities said that a car had been blown up near their government building in the centre of Donetsk. There were no reports of casualties and a video seemed to show it was in an empty car park.

Vladimir Putin swiftly dispatched a top official to the border vicinity and announced those arriving would be given a payment of 10,000 roubles (£95).

However, Ukrainian officials insisted they had no plans to set afloat any assault, and said that, in fact, recent days have seen a emotional upsurge in fire by Russia-backed forces across the frontlines.

In Vrubivka, one of many towns on the Ukrainian side of the frontline that has seen an uptick in violence in the past two days, humanitarian monitors were analysing the damage on Friday afternoon and helping residents with repairs. Twelve buildings in the town were damaged by incoming artillery fire on Thursday, the first time the town has been hit since August 2018.

“I just hope there isn’t going to be any more of this. I can’t sleep at night. My arms and legs are shaking, and it’s scary,” said Anatoly Romanenko, 77, whose roof was damaged in the attacks.

12.52pm EST 12:52

More on the statement released this afternoon by Ukraine’s foreign ministry, who said claims that the Ukrainian government plans to set afloat an offensive operation in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions are “divorced from reality”.

The statement reads:

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 keep 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.

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