Latest Ukraine Updates: NATO says no sign of Russia de-escalation

Ukraine news from February 16: NATO says no sign of Russian de-escalation, considers reinforcing southeastern flank.

US military belonging to the Task Force Cougar detachment stand in formation for the visit of the NATO Secretary General at the military airbase of Mihail Kogalniceanu, Romania
US military belonging to the Task Force Cougar detachment stand in formation for the visit of the NATO secretary general at the military airbase of Mihail Kogalniceanu, Romania, near the Black Sea shore [Robert Ghement/EPA]

NATO has tasked its commanders to work out details for a deployment of battlegroups to the alliance’s southeastern flank, Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has said.

“Ministers decided to develop options to further strengthen NATO’s deterrence and defence, including to consider establishing new NATO battlegroups in central and eastern and southeastern Europe,” Stoltenberg said on Tuesday.

“Our military commanders will now work on the details and report back within weeks,” he added.

Meanwhile, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the United States is yet to see any evidence of a significant Russian withdrawal of its military forces from near Ukraine’s frontiers, despite claims from Moscow that a pullback is under way.

But the Russian defence ministry said its forces were retreating after exercises in the country’s southern and western military districts.

Meanwhile, Ukrainians were marking a “day of unity” called for by President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

This live blog is now closed, thanks for joining us. Here are the updates for February 16.

Russia ‘likely’ to launch a ‘limited’ military attack against Ukraine

Russia is likely to launch a “limited” military attack against Ukraine, the head of the Estonian Foreign Intelligence Service has said.

The attack would include missile bombarding and the occupation of “key terrain” in Ukraine, Mikk Marran, director general of Estonian Foreign Intelligence Service said.

“Right now, our assessment is that they would avoid cities with large populations, as it takes a lot of troops to control those areas. But there is no clear understanding of what avenue the Russian troops might exploit,” he told a media briefing held to introduce its annual report.

UK will double the number of troops in Estonia as part of NATO mission

The United Kingdom will double the size of the British force in Estonia as part of a NATO deployment and will send equipment, including tanks and armoured fighting vehicles.

“Alongside our NATO Allies, we are deploying troops and assets on land, sea and air to bolster European defences in response to the build-up of Russian military forces on the border of Ukraine,” British defence minister Ben Wallace said in a statement.

“NATO and our allies have been clear that an invasion of Ukraine will be met with severe consequences.”

Ukraine leader says not afraid, ‘we will defend ourselves’

Zelensky has used a “Day of Unity” address to declare that Ukraine is fearless in the face of a potential Russian invasion, promising his country would fight back.

“We are not afraid of forecasts, we are not afraid of anyone, of any enemies,” Zelensky said at a military-style event in the eastern port city of Mariupol, adding: “We will defend ourselves.”

NATO commanders to draw up plans for possible new battlegroups

NATO has tasked its commanders to work out details for a deployment of battlegroups to the alliance’s southeastern flank, Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said.

“Ministers decided to develop options to further strengthen NATO’s deterrence and defence, including to consider establishing new NATO battlegroups in central and eastern and southeastern Europe,” Stoltenberg told reporters at a two-day meeting of the alliance’s defence ministers in Brussels.

“Our military commanders will now work on the details and report back within weeks,” he added.

Biden to hold phone talks with Germany’s Scholz

US President Joe Biden will conduct telephone talks with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz later on Wednesday, at about 19:30 GMT, the White House says.

The phone call comes after Scholz visited Moscow on Tuesday for talks over the Ukraine crisis with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

‘Nobody is interested in war’

Al Jazeera’s Dorsa Jabbari, reporting from Moscow, says the sense in the Russian capital is that the US and NATO are using the Ukraine crisis as a ploy to “get Moscow to back off from its security demands”.

“This is a feeling that is shared by various officials as well as the general public, they believe that nobody is interested in war and certainly Putin has made it very clear that he is not going to invade Ukraine,” she said.

“But he does want to have a conversation with Biden about the security concerns that Moscow has regarding NATO.”

Russians going against Putin in Ukraine

When war broke out in Ukraine’s east in 2014, thousands joined volunteer militias to bolster the then-weak Ukrainian army. Among their ranks were Russians, including far-right activists taking up arms against Russia-backed separatists.

And now, as the Russian army amasses near Ukraine’s borders, they say they are ready to do it again and fight against their own government.

Read more here.

Blinken warns Russia against recognising Ukraine’s breakaway regions as independent

Blinken has condemned a proposal by Russian legislators to formally acknowledge two Russian-backed breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine as independent.

Russia’s lower house of parliament voted on Tuesday to ask Putin to recognise the self-declared Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics, and the European Union told Moscow not to follow through.

“Enactment of this resolution would further undermine Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, constitute a gross violation of international law, call into further question Russia’s stated commitment to continue to engage in diplomacy to achieve a peaceful resolution of this crisis,” the US secretary of state said.

Blinken also warned the move would “necessitate a swift and firm response from the United States in full coordination with our Allies and partners”.

Ryanair says it has an ‘obligation’ to continue flights to and from Ukraine

Ryanair, one of the largest foreign airlines in Ukraine, has said it has a duty to carry on flying passengers in and out of the country as long as a feared Russian invasion does not materialise.

“Is it our duty and obligation … to support the people of Ukraine as long as there is no war or missiles flying there,” Group Chief Executive Michael O’Leary told a news conference in Lisbon.

O’Leary said he saw no reason to halt flights unless European authorities say it is not safe to fly to Ukraine. Several airlines have either halted flights to Ukraine or are considering doing so, but Ukrainian authorities have said they will keep the country’s airspace open.

“It is important not to panic,” he said. “People need to get home and people want to leave and fly abroad to the EU … airlines have to provide that service.”

US sees no sign of Russian pullback, says Blinken

Blinken says Washington has not seen any evidence of a pullback of Russian troops from around Ukraine’s borders and that Moscow has, on the contrary, been moving critical units closer to the area.

“There’s what Russia says and then there’s what Russia does. And we haven’t seen any pullback of its forces,” the US secretary of state told US broadcaster MSNBC. “We continue to see critical units moving toward the border, not away from the border.”

“So what we need to see is exactly the opposite. We need to see these forces moving away.”

Infographic: The impact of the Ukraine-Russia crisis on aviation

Al Jazeera has put together a series of infographics that demonstrate the effect the standoff between Kyiv and Moscow has on aviation. Take a look here.

INTERACTIVE- Kyiv Ukraine Russia flights

Ukrainian security official suggests Russia behind cyberattacks

A senior official in Ukraine’s state security service has said only Russia would be interested in carrying out continuing distributed denial of service (DDOS) attacks being weathered by the country’s defence ministry and large state-owned banks.

“We know that the only country that is interested in such … attacks on our state, especially against the backdrop of massive panic about a possible military invasion, the only country that is interested is the Russian Federation,” Illya Vityuk said.

Vityuk, head of the cybersecurity department of the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU), said it was too early to identify specific perpetrators, however. The Kremlin has denied having any involvement in the cyberattacks.

Macron says China backs implementation of Minsk agreement

France and China have agreed it is necessary to pursue dialogue and support de-escalation in the Ukraine crisis, Emmanuel Macron’s office says in a statement following a phone call between the French president and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping.

Macron’s office also said that Xi reiterated his full support for the implementation of the 2015 Minsk agreement during the pair’s talks.

Click here to read more on the Minsk agreement, which was aimed at ending the war in eastern Ukraine, but was never fully implemented.

Ukraine trying to ‘rally a sense of patriotism’ with ‘day of unity’

Al Jazeera’s Natacha Butler, reporting from Kyiv, says Ukraine’s so-called “day of unity” was meant to send a message to Russia that “Ukrainians are strong, the country is strong, and that they would be willing to fight if there was any attack or invasion”.

“This all enters into this idea of trying to rally a sense of patriotism in a country that woke up today thinking there might be an invasion, because this is February 16, a date that Western intelligence sources had said could be the first day of any possible attack on Ukraine,” she said.

“But here in the capital … people are really wondering what will happen next and are increasingly fed up with having to think each day whether there might or not be an invasion – it’s a very tense time.”

Russia ready to re-route energy flows in event of sanctions

Russia will be ready to re-route supplies to other markets should new Western sanctions target its energy companies, Finance Minister Anton Siluanov says.

Siluanov did not say how Russia would divert its energy exports but said Russia’s foreign exchange reserves, National Wealth Fund and a budget surplus should shield its economy and banks from any possible sanctions hit.

The US and its allies are considering new sanctions – including against Russia’s largest banks, economy and energy sector, with export controls possible – in the event that Moscow launches an invasion.

An employee is seen walking past a part of Gazprom's Power Of Siberia gas pipeline at the Atamanskaya compressor station outside the far eastern town of Svobodny, in Russia's Amur region
Europe’s reliance on Russian gas has been a major talking point amid the Ukraine crisis as Western powers eye possible sanctions on Moscow [File: Maxim Shemetov/Reuters]

NATO must publicly state Ukraine will not become a member, Russian diplomat says

Moscow wants NATO to publicly promise that it will not let Ukraine join the military alliance, Russian diplomat Konstantin Gavrilov has said, according to reports.

“Russia will insist that NATO publicly announces its refusal to accept Ukraine into its ranks. Kyiv, in turn, must proclaim its neutral, non-aligned status,” Russia’s RIA Novosti news agency quoted Gavrilov, who is based in Vienna, as saying.

Moscow has repeatedly called for assurances that Ukraine will never be permitted to become part of NATO’s ranks, but the US-led alliance has rejected those demands, insisting its “open door” policy must be upheld.

As a current “partner country”, there is an understanding that Ukraine may be able to join NATO sometime in the future – an objective that is written into the country’s constitution.

Moscow mocks the West over invasion warning

Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova has made fun of Western officials for warning that today may be the date upon which Moscow would launch an attack on Ukraine.

“I’d like to ask if US and British sources of disinformation … could publish the schedule of our upcoming invasions for the year. I’d like to plan my holidays,” Zakharova wrote on social media.

G7 foreign ministers to meet on sidelines of Munich conference

Germany’s Annalena Baerbock will lead a meeting of foreign ministers from the Group of Seven industrialised nations on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference, a spokesperson for the foreign ministry has said.

The Munich Security Conference takes place later this week, from Friday to Sunday. The foreign ministers’ meeting will likely take place on Saturday, the spokesperson said.

‘Prepared for the worst’: Poland braces for influx of Ukrainian refugees

Poland is planning for a possible influx of refugees from neighbouring Ukraine in case of a Russian invasion, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki says.

“In the next few days I will be convening a team … which will deal with issues of logistics, facilities, transport, infrastructure,” Morawiecki told reporters.

“We must be prepared for the worst,” he said, adding that the team would also be tasked with ensuring that any refugees crossing the border into Poland have access to healthcare and education.

Read more on this topic here.

China’s Xi calls for political resolution to crisis

Xi has called for a political resolution to the Ukraine crisis in a phone call with Macron, according to state media reports.

The Chinese president encouraged all parties involved to resolve the crisis through dialogue and make full use of multilateral platforms, including the Normandy format, an informal grouping set up by French, German, Russian and Ukrainian diplomats in 2014, the reports said.

No Russian withdrawal yet, Ukraine’s Zelenskyy says: Report

Zelenskyy has said he does not yet see any Russian troop withdrawal from positions near the Ukrainian border, the BBC reports.

“To be honest, we react to the reality we have, and we don’t see any withdrawal yet, we’ve just heard about it,” the BBC quoted the Ukrainian president as saying during a visit to western Ukraine.

“I think all normal people expect de-escalation. As for the threat, I have said many times that we are calm about any threats because we remember that all this did not start yesterday. This has been happening for many years,” he added.

INTERACTIVE- Where are Russian troops stationed?

Russian armed forces returning to bases, says western military district

Russian armed forces have started returning to permanent military bases after loading tanks and other military vehicles onto railway wagons, the country’s western military district says.

Russia’s southern military district had earlier said more forces surrounding Ukraine were withdrawing.

NATO ‘firmly believes Russia is poised to invade’

Al Jazeera’s Neave Barker, reporting from Brussels, says NATO’s position on Russia’s military build-up has not changed despite Moscow’s announcement of a pullback.

“The alliance firmly believes that Russia is poised to potentially invade Ukraine,” he said.

Barker also described the meeting of NATO defence ministers in the Belgian capital as a “chance for them to reconnect with the mothership and consolidate their stance” over the crisis.

Moscow welcomes ‘positive’ sign from Biden on talks

The Kremlin says it is “positive” that Biden has signalled a desire to continue talks with Moscow amid its standoff with the West.

“We can welcome that the president of the United States, one of the most powerful countries, thinks about the Russian nation,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters. “[But] Of course, we would rather not hear the threats about what will happen to us if we do something or not do something … We are tired of these.”

A day earlier, Biden had promised to push for a diplomatic solution to the crisis, but he also warned that a Russian invasion remained “very much a possibility” and that retaliatory sanctions were primed and ready should Moscow attack.

Lavrov says Moscow will retaliate if UK imposes new sanctions

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has said Moscow will retaliate should the United Kingdom impose new sanctions over the Ukraine crisis.

The UK threatened on Tuesday to block Russian companies from raising capital in London and to expose property and company ownership if Russia invades its neighbour.

China accuses Western powers of ‘playing up the threat of warfare’

China has accused the US and its Western allies of “playing up the threat of warfare and creating tension” amid the Ukraine crisis.

“Such persistent hyping up and disinformation by some Western countries will create turbulence and uncertainty to the world full of challenges, and intensify distress and division,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin told reporters at a regular briefing in Beijing.

Washington has urged American citizens to leave Ukraine immediately, warning an attack could come at any time despite Russia repeatedly denying it has any plans to invade. The UK has done the same.

Kremlin denies Russian involvement in Ukraine cyberattacks

The Kremlin spokesman has denied that Russia was behind a series of cyberattacks on Ukraine’s defence ministry and two major banks but said that it was not surprising Kyiv would blame Moscow for the incidents.

“As expected, Ukraine continues blaming Russia for everything. Russia has nothing to do with any DDOS attacks,” Peskov told reporters.

Kyiv had earlier said the cyberattacks could have been orchestrated by Moscow.

A man is seen holding a laptop computer as cyber code is projected on him
The latest cyberattack on Ukrainian institutions came one month after another attack briefly took down key government websites [File: Kacper Pempel/Reuters]

NATO and the Ukraine-Russia crisis: Five key things to know

The future of NATO, the transatlantic security alliance, is at the centre of the standoff between Russia and the West over Ukraine.

Click here to find out more.

Movement of Russian troops does not confirm pullback, NATO chief says

Stoltenberg has urged Russia to prove that it is pulling back troops from Ukraine’s borders.

“It remains to be seen whether there is a Russian withdrawal … What we see is that they have increased the number of troops, and more troops are on the way,” Stoltenberg told reporters.

“If they really start to withdraw forces, that’s something we will welcome … They have always moved forces back and forth so just that we see movement of forces, of battle tanks, doesn’t confirm a real withdrawal.”

Ukrainians face ‘game of cat and mouse’ with stoic calm

Ukrainians living in the country’s east are carrying on their daily lives, mostly as usual, as local analysts warn the crisis may rumble on for months to come.

“This could even last indefinitely – the game of cat and mouse is just getting started,” Peter Zalmayev, director of the Eurasia Democracy Initiative, a think-tank on post-Soviet states, told Al Jazeera.

Read more here.

Russia bolstering troop numbers near Ukraine, Canada’s defence minister says

Canadian Defence Minister Anita Anand says she hopes to see evidence of a Russian troop withdrawal from around Ukraine’s borders but warned that, for the moment, numbers were increasing.

“The escalation of Russian troops at the Ukrainian border, including in Belarus, is increasingly significant,” Anand told reporters as she arrived for the meeting of NATO defence ministers.

“We look forward to seeing evidence of the withdrawal of troops on Russia’s part. But we need to prepare for any eventuality with that significant escalation of Russian troops that we have seen over the last weeks,” she said, adding the situation was at a pivotal moment.

Timeline: Ukraine’s turbulent history

Ukraine has faced significant challenges since winning independence in 1991.

For a timeline of developments, click here.

‘We are here to stay’: Ukrainians raise flags in show of national unity

Ukrainians are raising national flags and playing the country’s anthem to mark the country’s “day of unity”.

The yellow and blue banner fluttered outside schools, hospitals and many shops, while a loudspeaker at a local government office in the capital, Kyiv, blared patriotic songs. National television and government YouTube channels also broadcast speeches and rousing reminders of Ukraine’s nationhood.

“Everyone wants to scare us … [but] we are here to stay,” Ludmila, a pensioner, who wore a tiny Ukrainian flag on the lapel of her coat, told Reuters.

Ukraine's biggest national flag on the country's highest flagpole and the giant 'Motherland' monument are seen at a compound of the World War II museum in Kyiv
Ukraine’s biggest national flag, on the country’s highest flagpole, and the giant ‘Motherland’ monument are seen at a compound of the World War II Museum in Kyiv [File: Valentyn Ogirenko/Reuters]

Russian soldiers will leave Belarus once drills conclude, foreign minister says

Belarusian Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei says no Russian soldiers or military equipment will remain in the country after the pair’s joint military drills come to an end.

Moscow has repeatedly said the tens of thousands of troops it deployed to neighbouring Belarus, which also borders Ukraine, for war games will leave once the exercises are over.

‘A choice between war and tragic sacrifices’: EU Council president

European Council President Charles Michel has urged Russia to demonstrate its will to de-escalate the crisis by actions rather than words.

“In the last two days, Russia has signalled that it may be open to diplomacy, and we urge Russia to take concrete and tangible steps towards de-escalation because this is the condition for sincere political dialogue,” Michel told European lawmakers.

“The choice today is a choice between war and tragic sacrifices that would go along with that war or the courage of a political engagement, the courage of a diplomatic negotiation”, he added.

Ukraine’s defence ministry reports ongoing ‘unprecedented’ cyberattack on its web portal

Ukraine’s defence ministry says its web portal has been hit by an unprecedented denial of service cyberattack that is still ongoing.

The ministry said hackers had succeeded in finding vulnerabilities in the portal’s programming code. Traffic was being rerouted to servers in the US while the issue was being fixed, it said.

The issue was first reported on Tuesday when a series of cyberattacks also knocked two major banks offline, officials in the country said.

Russia says video shows military equipment leaving Crimea

Russia’s defence ministry has released video footage that it says shows a column of tanks and military vehicles leaving annexed Crimea after drills, adding that some troops would also return to their permanent bases.

“Combat equipment and military personnel will be delivered by military trains to the units’ permanent deployment points,” the ministry said. “Upon arrival, the equipment will be serviced and prepared for carrying out the next phase of combat training.”

The video, published by RIA, showed dozens of military vehicles crossing a railway bridge at night. Moscow seized the Crimean Peninsula from Kyiv in early 2014.

UK says no evidence of Russian withdrawal from Ukraine’s border

The UK is yet to see any evidence that Russia is withdrawing troops from positions near the Ukrainian border, Defence Secretary Ben Wallace has said.

“We haven’t seen any evidence at the moment of that withdrawal,” Wallace told the UK’s Times Radio. “We’ll take Russia at its word, but we will judge them on their actions,” he added.

Ukraine defence minister sees stable security situation

Oleksii Reznikov says the latest threat assessments did not contain “anything unexpected” and were consistent with earlier views.

In a televised statement, Ukraine’s defence minister said his country’s armed forces were keeping up a nationwide military drill, one of which would be attended by the military attache of Belarus.

Russia makes moves to ease Ukraine tensions, West remains sceptical

Russian President Vladimir Putin has said Moscow does not want war and would rely on diplomatic efforts to eliminate any chance that Ukraine could one day join NATO – his key demand in the crisis. At the same time, he did not commit to a full military pullback, saying Russia’s next moves in the standoff will depend on how the situation evolves.

Biden, for his part, promised that Washington would give diplomacy “every chance”, but he struck a sceptical tone about Moscow’s intentions.

“Two paths are still open,” Biden said in remarks at the White House. “But let there be no doubt: if Russia commits this breach by invading Ukraine, responsible nations around the world will not hesitate to respond. If we do not stand for freedom where it is at risk today, we’ll surely pay a steeper price tomorrow.”

Wheat and corn prices ride the Ukrainian rollercoaster

The crisis between Ukraine and Russia, two of the world’s biggest wheat and corn producers, has sent the commodities’ prices on a wild ride.

The grains’ markets turned around three times in less than 24 hours this week: first on the Russian foreign minister’s optimistic tone on Monday, then on news of the US relocating its Ukrainian embassy, and finally on Moscow’s claims of a military pullback.

“The market doesn’t know nuance: Either it’s war and it goes up, or it’s peace and it goes down,” said Gautier Le Molgat, an analyst at Agritel.

The stakes are especially high for wheat, with Russia being the world’s top exporter and Ukraine the fourth, according to estimates by the US Department of Agriculture. Together, the two countries account for almost a third of wheat’s world trade.

A wheat field is pictured near the village of Zhovtneve, in Ukraine
Together, Russia and Ukraine account for almost a third of wheat’s world trade [File: Valentyn Ogirenko/Reuters]

China may take advantage of Ukraine crisis, US general warns

US General Kenneth Wilsbach, head of US Pacific Air Forces, says China might do something “provocative” in Asia while the Western world is preoccupied with the Ukraine crisis.

“From the standpoint of will China see what’s happening in Europe and … try to do something here in the Indo-Pacific – absolutely yes, that’s a concern,” Wilsbach said, using an alternative term for the Asia-Pacific region.

Beijing has aligned itself with Moscow amid the current crisis.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies