Latest Ukraine updates: US warns Russia preparing for invasion

Ukraine news from February 17: Russian deputy foreign minister says claims it plans to invade are ‘baseless’.

Russian army tanks move back to their permanent base after drills in Russia
Russian army tanks move back to their permanent base after drills in Russia [Russian Defence Ministry Press Service via AP Photo]

US President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken have warned that Russia could be on the brink of invading Ukraine amid an apparent failure to withdraw troops from its side of the border and accusations of a possible false-flag operation in Ukraine’s east.

NATO’s Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg also voiced concern on Thursday that Russia may be attempting to “stage a pretext” for an attack on Ukraine following reports of shelling in the country’s conflict-hit east.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said pro-Russian forces had shelled a kindergarten, in what he called a “big provocation”.

For its part, the Kremlin said Moscow was “seriously concerned” about reports of an escalation after the separatists accused government forces of opening fire on the territory they hold four times in the past 24 hours.

This live blog is now closed, thank you for joining us. These are the updates for February 17.

Russian military in Belarus threatens Baltics and Poland: Lithuanian president

Russia has amassed 45,000 soldiers in Belarus and their presence is threatening to Baltic states and Poland, Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda has said.

The joint Russian and Belarus military exercise near the Belarus border with Ukraine is scheduled to end on Sunday.

“They amassed 45,000 troops, a lot of military equipment, air forces. And we do not hear very clearly articulated promises that this will be removed to Russian territory after the military exercise ends. This is one more way to keep the tension up,” Nauseda said in a video statement after a meeting of EU leaders in Brussels.

“This creates more potential threats now and for Baltic States and Poland,” he said.

German FM: Russia should prevent ‘disinformation’ on troop withdrawal

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock has called on Russia to prevent “disinformation” regarding the withdrawal of troops.

“It is now central that we do not have disinformation that continues to spread,” she said. “On the contrary, the Russian government must provide full transparency on how the troops are to be withdrawn.”

No certainty over Ukraine in coming days: NATO’s Stoltenberg

There is no certainty on what will happen in terms of the Russia-Ukraine crisis in the coming days, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has said, in an interview with Polish state broadcaster TVP.

Iranian FM hopes tensions can be resolved through diplomacy

Iran’s foreign minister, Hossein Amirabdollahian, has held a phone call with Ukrainian counterpart Dmytro Kuleba, saying he hopes tensions with Russia can be resolved through diplomatic channels and without including other countries.

“We wish for peace and stability in the region to be maintained,” he said, expressing Iran’s readiness to help if necessary.

Kuleba said, “We don’t want war,” according to the Iranian foreign ministry, adding that Ukraine is after a peaceful resolution.

UK urges Russia not to recognise breakaway regions as independent

The UK has said a request by Russia’s parliament that President Vladimir Putin should recognise the breakaway Ukrainian regions of Donetsk and Luhansk as independent showed “flagrant disregard” for Moscow’s peace process commitments.

“If this request were accepted, it would represent a further attack on Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, signal an end to the Minsk process and demonstrate a Russian decision to choose a path of confrontation over dialogue,” British Foreign Minister Liz Truss said.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken criticised the move by Russian lawmakers towards recognising the two Russian-backed breakaway regions as independent.

Chances of joining NATO fading away, Zelenskyy says

The chances of Ukraine joining NATO are fading away, Zelenskyy has said.

“There are concrete causes: The resistance from Russia and some member countries of the alliance,” he said in a statement.

Zelenskyy added that this was no secret, but did not name the countries. The Russians are using the current troop presence on the Ukrainian borders as a means of exerting pressure, he said.

Moscow says US diplomat’s expulsion mirrored US move against Russian

Russia has said it has ordered the number-two diplomat at the US embassy to leave the country in response to the US expulsion of a senior official at the Russian embassy in Washington.

The Russian foreign ministry issued a statement explaining the expulsion of US Deputy Chief of Mission Bart Gorman in response to what it said were media reports presenting it as “almost a deliberate escalation on the Russian side”.

“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,” the ministry said.

It did not name the expelled Russian diplomat or say when he was forced to leave.

Russian deputy FM says military scenarios put forth by Blinken are regrettable

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Vershinin has said the military scenarios put forward by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken were regrettable and dangerous, adding that some Russian soldiers are returning to home bases.

Blinken, at the United Nations Security Council, laid out how Washington believes Russia could seek to invade Ukraine, warning that Moscow was preparing to take such military action in the “coming days”.

Ukraine, Poland, UK to advance cooperation: Statement

Ukraine, Poland and the UK have agreed to develop a Trilateral Memorandum of Cooperation, the three states have said in a joint statement.

“We will work together to advance our cooperation, which includes but not limited to co-ordinating support to the International Crimea Platform, increasing our collaboration on cyber security, energy security, and boosting strategic communications to counter disinformation,” it said.

“Poland and the UK will continue to provide Ukraine with support, standing in unity with Ukraine, in the face of ongoing Russian aggression, and fully committed to stand with Ukrainian nation in its efforts aimed at defending Ukraine’s sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity within its internationally recognised borders.”

UK Foreign Secretary Liz Truss and Ukrainian Minister of Foreign Affairs Dmytro are seen standing side by side Kuleba
UK Foreign Secretary Liz Truss is seen with Ukrainian Minister of Foreign Affairs Dmytro Kuleba [Ministry of Foreign Affairs]

NATO will not let Russia erode international norms: Canada

Russia’s military aggression towards Ukraine presents a clear threat to the rules-based international order and NATO will do its best to deter this, Canadian Defence Minister Anita Anand has said.

“NATO is a defensive alliance … we cannot and we will not stand idly by while a nation seeks to erode international norms that have kept us safe since the end of World War II,” she said on a conference call with reporters from Brussels.

Blinken to UN: Russia laying groundwork for Ukraine invasion

Russia is establishing a pretext to invade Ukraine, according to comments by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to the UN Security Council.

“This could be a violent event that Russia will bring on Ukraine, or an outrageous accusation that Russia will level against the Ukrainian government.

“Russia may describe this event as ethnic cleansing or a genocide making a mockery of a concept that we in this chamber did not take lightly,” he said.

“We believe these targets include Russia’s capital [or] Ukraine’s capital Kyiv, a city of 2.8 million people,” he said.

UK’s Truss: China should put pressure on Russia to step back from Ukraine

British Foreign Minister Liz Truss has called on China to put pressure on Russia over the Ukraine crisis, saying its support of the Kremlin was inconsistent in its non-interference policy and any hopes of being seen as a responsible global actor.

“China is not the same as Russia. They claim a policy of non-interference. That’s why it’s surprising to see China’s leaders aligning themselves with the Kremlin,” Truss said in a speech in Kyiv.

“If China wants to be seen as a responsible global actor, they should be doing everything possible to ensure that Russia steps back,” Truss said. “The world is watching to see whether their actions contribute to peace and stability or to fuelling aggression.”

Russia pulls back some troops from Crimea to their base in Chechnya: Ifax

Some Russian troops that took part in military drills in Crimea, the peninsula that Russia annexed from Ukraine in 2014, have returned to their base in Russia’s southern region of Chechnya, Interfax news agency has quoted the defence ministry as saying.

Russia said this week some troops were returning to their bases after completing drills in areas adjacent to Ukraine but the US and NATO said Moscow had added new forces.

German army reinforcements reach Lithuania

A German army convoy of 130 soldiers and 60 vehicles has reached Lithuania, bringing almost half of planned reinforcements for the country’s German-led NATO battlegroup.

The German reinforcement operation will continue until the end of the week, bolstering German forces in Lithuania by more than 350 soldiers and 100 vehicles, Enhanced Forward Presence battlegroup commander Lieutenant-Colonel Daniel Andrae said.

“We have proven that we are capable of bringing in forces at short notice from long distance,” he told Reuters.

OSCE says tension ‘may seem to be easing’ in eastern Ukraine

The head of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) monitoring mission has told the UN Security Council that a flare up in tensions in eastern Ukraine overnight may be easing.

Yaşar Halit Çevik, chief monitor of the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission in Ukraine, said that some 500 explosions had been recorded between Wednesday evening and Thursday morning.

“After 11:20am we have recorded about 30 explosions, so the tension may seem to be easing,” he told the council.

Kremlin says Biden fuelling tension

The Kremlin has accused Biden of stoking tension by saying he expects Russia to invade Ukraine within days, RIA news agency has reported.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov was responding to Biden’s comment that an invasion was likely “in the next several days”.

Russian foreign ministry website goes back online

The website of Russia’s foreign ministry is back online after going down for a few hours.

The TASS news agency cited the ministry as saying that the website had gone down due to technical issues, without elaborating.

Blinken says Russian forces preparing to launch attack against Ukraine in ‘coming days’

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has warned that Russian forces are preparing to launch an attack against Ukraine in “coming days,” adding that Russia plans to manufacture a pretext for an attack on its neighbour that could include a fake or real assault using chemical weapons.

Blinken told a UN Security Council meeting on Ukraine that he had sent a letter to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov earlier on Thursday proposing a meeting in person in Europe next week, as he called on Russia to state clearly and plainly during the meeting that it would not invade Ukraine.

Russia will manufacture a pretext, Blinken says

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said that Russia will manufacture a pretext, convene an emergency meeting and say that Russians or ethnic Russians need to be protected, and then a war will begin.

“Missiles and bombs drop across Ukraine, communications will be jammed, cyberattacks will shut down Ukrainian institutions,” Blinken told the UN Security Council.

“After that, Russian tanks and soldiers will advance on key targets that have already been identified and mapped out in detailed plans.”

A Russian tank rolls on the field during military drills in Leningrad region, Russia.
A Russian tank rolls on the field during military drills in Leningrad region, Russia [Russian Defence Ministry Press Service via AP Photo]

Blinken: Principles that sustain security ‘are under threat’

Speaking to the UN Security Council, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said that principles that sustain peace and security are under threat.

“This crisis directly affects every member of this council and every country in the world because the basic principles that sustain peace and security – principles that were enshrined in the wake of two world wars and the Cold War are under threat,” Blinken said.

“The principle that one country cannot change the borders of another by force.The principle that one country cannot dictate another’s choices or policies or with whom people associate, the principle of national sovereignty.

“This is the exact kind of crisis that the United Nations and specifically this Security Council was created to prevent. We must address what Russia is doing right now to Ukraine”.

UN political affairs chief says concerned about reports of ceasefire violations

United Nations Political Affairs Chief Rosemary DiCarlo has said there is concern about reports of fresh ceasefire violations in Ukraine during the past several hours and has called on all sides to exercise restraint.

“Whatever one believes about the prospect of such a confrontation, the reality is that the current situation is extremely dangerous,” DiCarlo told a UN Security Council meeting on Ukraine.

Moscow digs in on security demands, but says it is ready to discuss missiles

Russia has restated a set of security demands that the United States and its allies have already rejected, but also said for the first time it is ready to talk about mutual inspections of missile sites.

In a lengthy document handed to the US ambassador to Russia, Moscow accused Washington of failing to respond constructively to the demands it first presented in December, including for a halt to the eastern enlargement of NATO and a guarantee that Ukraine will never be permitted to join the alliance.

Russia’s “red lines” were still being ignored, it said in a riposte to US and NATO counter-proposals received last month.

But Russia’s RIA Novosti news agency quoted the country’s foreign ministry as saying Moscow was willing to discuss allowing checks on some of its missile facilities in European Russia in exchange for verification of US missile defence sites in Poland and Romania. The idea was floated by Washington last month.

Russia lists demands for Ukraine de-escalation

Russia’s response to the US has also listed a series of demands Moscow says need to be met in order for there to be a de-escalation of the Ukraine crisis.

These include a halt to Western weapons supplies and removal of those already sent, the withdrawal of Western military advisers and instructors from Ukraine, and a halt to any joint NATO exercises with Ukraine.

“In the absence of the readiness of the American side to agree on firm, legally binding guarantees of our security from the United States and its allies, Russia will be forced to respond, including through the implementation of military-technical measures,” the document said.

Russia has suggested in the past that “military-technical measures” could include missile and troop deployments.

Biden says threat of Russian invasion is ‘very high’

US President Joe Biden has warned that the threat of a Russian invasion of Ukraine is now “very high”, but added the door to a diplomatic solution remains open.

Speaking to reporters at the White House, Biden said “every indication” Washington had suggested Moscow was “prepared to go into Ukraine” within several days.

He claimed that Russia had not moved back its forces from near Ukraine’s borders and said Washington had reason to believe the Kremlin was now engaged in a false flag operation that could be used to justify an invasion.

But he added a diplomatic solution remained possible, which is why he had asked Secretary of State Antony Blinken to go to the United Nations to make a statement on Thursday. “He’ll lay out what that path is,” Biden said.

Russia expels US diplomat

Russia has expelled the US deputy chief of mission (DCM) to Russia, Bart Gorman, a Department of State spokesperson says.

“Russia’s action against our DCM was unprovoked and we consider this an escalatory step and are considering our response,” the spokesperson said.

It was not immediately clear what Moscow’s justification for the expulsion was, but the US and Russia have been engaged in a tussle over their respective diplomatic presences in each others’ capitals of late and the Kremlin said in December that US embassy staff who had been in their posts for more than three years should return home.

The Department of State spokesperson said Gorman, the second most senior official at the US embassy in Moscow, had a valid visa and had been in Russia for less than three years.

Zelenskyy accuses rebels of shelling kindergarten in ‘big provocation’

Zelenskyy says that Russian-backed separatists have shelled a kindergarten situated in a village in eastern Ukraine, calling the attack a “big provocation”.

“It’s important that diplomats and the OSCE remain in, their monitoring activities are an additional deterrent. We need an effective mechanism for recording all ceasefire violations,” he said on Twitter, citing the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which has been monitoring the situation in eastern Ukraine but has pulled out some of its staff in recent days.

Satellite images indicate Russian military activity near Ukraine still high

Satellite images show Russia has moved some of its military equipment that was deployed near Ukraine, but other hardware has arrived and Moscow still has a lot of forces and equipment massed close to its ex-Soviet neighbour, US-based private company Maxar Technologies says.

The pictures released by Maxar Technologies, which has been tracking the build-up of Russian forces for weeks, showed locations in Belarus, western Russia and annexed Crimea on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday.

Al Jazeera could not independently verify the images.

NATO chief warns Russia could be trying to stage a ‘pretext’ for an invasion

NATO is concerned Russia could be trying to stage a “pretext” for an invasion in Ukraine amid reports of shelling across the ceasefire line in the country’s conflict-hit east, its secretary-general has said.

“There is still no clarity, no certainty about the Russian intentions,” Stoltenberg told reporters after a two-day meeting of NATO defence ministers at the alliance’s headquarters in Brussels.

UK forces have completed Ukraine military training activities, minister says

The United Kingdom has finished its military training activities in Ukraine and the only remaining British troops in the country are there to protect the ambassador, a government minister has said.

“Within Ukraine itself, there is a small force that remains for the purposes of protecting the ambassador and her team,” Armed Forces minister James Heappey told the BBC.

“Beyond that, all of our training activity alongside the Ukrainians has been ceased and we’ve been very clear throughout that there will be no UK involvement in any conflict in Ukraine.”

The UK had supplied defensive weapons and training personnel to Ukraine.

EU ready to present sanctions package ‘as soon as needed’

The European Union is ready to present a stinging package of sanctions on Russia should Moscow attack Ukraine, the bloc’s top diplomat says.

“We have a very tough package prepared and I am ready to present this package as soon as needed,” Josep Borrell told reporters upon arriving at a summit with EU and African leaders.

US envoy to UN says Russia moving towards ‘imminent invasion’

Russia is still moving toward an “imminent invasion” of Ukraine, the US envoy to the UN has claimed before what is expected to be a heated meeting of the world body’s security council on the ongoing crisis.

Linda Thomas-Greenfield said the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) meet “should focus on what is happening right now” and said Blinken’s attendance at the organisation’s headquarters in New York would demonstrate Washington’s “intense commitment to diplomacy”.

“Our goal is to convey the gravity of the situation. The evidence on the ground is that Russia is moving toward an imminent invasion. This is a crucial moment,” she tweeted.

NATO membership a ‘guarantee of security’ for Ukraine, Zelenskyy says

Zelenskyy has said Ukraine will continue to press ahead with its aim of becoming a NATO member, arguing such a move would mean a “guarantee of security” for the country.

Speaking to the BBC, Ukraine’s president said joining the alliance was more than an “ambition”.

“We lost 15,000 people. It’s not an ambition. It’s our life,” Zelenskyy said, citing Kyiv’s death toll for the years-long war between Ukraine and Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine.

“It’s about the future of the people … If we speak about NATO … we are speaking about our independence. That’s it. That we decided what we want and will do in our future,” he added.

‘We will, if we must, defend every inch of NATO territory’

US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin says Washington remains committed to defending its NATO allies as tensions with Russia simmer.

“We will, if we must, defend every inch of NATO territory,” Austin told reporters at the alliance’s Brussels headquarters, where its member states’ foreign ministers had gathered for a second successive day of talks.

“There is no reason, of course, that it should ever come to this – just like there is no reason for Russia to again invade Ukraine,” he added, citing Russia’s 2014 annexation of the Crimean Peninsula.

“Ukraine does not threaten anyone, let alone its Russian neighbours, and yet that is what Moscow would have us to believe, and that is how [Russian President Vladimir] Putin continues to justify his assembly of significant combat power.”

NATO chief warns of ‘new normal’ for European security

Stoltenberg says NATO is yet to see any evidence of a withdrawal of Russian troops from around Ukraine’s borders, despite Moscow’s claim it is carrying out a pullback of forces.

“There are signs from Moscow that diplomacy could continue, but so far we have not seen any sign of withdrawal or de-escalation,” the alliance’s secretary-general told reporters in Brussels.

“Russia has yet again demonstrated its disregard for the principles underpinning European security and its ability and willingness to threaten the use of force in pursuit of its objectives,” he added. “Unfortunately, I am afraid this is the new normal which we need to be prepared for.”

UK’s Truss accuses Russia of trying to manufacture ‘pretexts for invasion’

The UK’s foreign secretary has accused Russia of “a blatant attempt … to fabricate pretexts for invasion” of Ukraine amid reports of intensified fighting involving Russia-backed separatists in the country’s conflict-hit east.

“This is straight out of the Kremlin playbook,” Liz Truss tweeted, adding that London would “continue to call out Russia’s disinformation campaign”.

Russia’s pullback of forces will ‘take some time’, Kremlin says

The Kremlin has said Russia’s withdrawal of forces from around Ukraine’s borders will “take some time”.

“The defence ministry has reported that certain phases of the [military] exercises are coming to an end, and as they do, military units are returning to permanent bases,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters, citing recent war games conducted by Moscow.

He cautioned that forces could not “just take to the air and all fly away”, however, saying that the drawdown announced by the defence ministry “has a schedule”.

Peskov’s remarks came after Moscow had earlier made two separate announcements concerning the return of Russian forces to bases following drills.

INTERACTIVE- Where are Russian troops stationed?

Opinion: A Russian invasion of Ukraine would be an international crime

International lawyers Frédéric Mégret and Kevin Jon Heller argue that persistent talk about geopolitics and so-called “spheres of influence” is overlooking a singular fact about any potential Russian invasion of Ukraine – that such a move would be a major violation of international law.

Read their joint opinion piece here.

Infographic: Russia, Ukraine and the global wheat supply

The crisis between Ukraine and Russia, two of the world’s biggest wheat producers, has sent the commodity’s prices on a wild ride amid concerns supplies could be affected.

For more on the outsized role Kyiv and Moscow play in the global market, click here.

INTERACTIVE- Russian and Ukrainian wheat export

Ukraine-Russia crisis: What is the Minsk agreement?

French President Emmanuel Macron has pointed to the 2015 Minsk Agreement between Kyiv and Moscow as the blueprint for a breakthrough in the Ukraine crisis.

The Minsk II deal, named after the Belarusian capital where it was settled, was aimed at ending the war in eastern Ukraine, where Kyiv has battled Russian-backed separatists since they seized a swath of territory in the region in early 2014.

But the agreement, which came on the back of Minsk I, an earlier failed attempt at a ceasefire pact, was never fully implemented. Years on, there has been no full political settlement and the deadly fighting in Donbas continues.

Click here to read more.

Ukraine accuses separatists of shelling an eastern village

Ukraine has accused Russian-backed separatists in Luhansk of firing heavy artillery at the village of Stanytsia-Luganska following earlier accusations from rebels in the region that government forces had opened fire on territory they control in a slew of incidents.

“The shells hit a kindergarten,” the Ukrainian military’s command centre in the east said. “According to preliminary data, two civilians were injured. Public infrastructure was also damaged. Half of the settlement was left without electricity.”

Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba condemned the alleged shelling in a post on Twitter.

“We call on all partners to swiftly condemn this severe violation of [the] Minsk agreements by Russia amid an already tense security situation,” he said.

Lukashenko says Belarus could host nuclear weapons

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko says his country could host nuclear weapons if it faces an external threat as tensions soar between Russia – a major ally and backer of Minsk – and the West.

“If necessary, if such stupid and mindless steps are taken by our rivals and opponents, we will deploy not only nuclear weapons, but super-nuclear and up-and-coming ones to protect our territory,” Lukashenko was quoted as saying by the Belarusian state news agency, Belta.

“But if there are no threats to Belarus from unfriendly countries, then nuclear weapons are not needed here for a hundred years,” he added.

Lukashenko is due to hold talks with Putin in Moscow on Friday.

Russian military pressure ‘will be maintained so diplomacy can continue’: Analyst

Glenn Diesen, a professor at the University of South-Eastern Norway and editor at the Russia in Global Affairs journal, says Russia will keep the “military pressure high” amid the crisis despite announcing a pullback of some forces.

“This is the only reason there is diplomacy to begin with,” Diesen told Al Jazeera from Oslo.

“Keep in mind that Russia has attempted [to forge] a mutually acceptable pan-European security agreement for the past 30 years, but its demands for security guarantees have … been ignored by the West simply because Russia was too weak and NATO could act unilaterally in Europe.

“So because diplomacy must be backed by military pressure, we can expect that the Russian military will scale back a little bit but the pressure will nonetheless be maintained so diplomacy can continue.”

NATO ‘deadly serious’ about Russia threat

The UK’s defence secretary has said NATO will continue to bolster its eastern flank to counter threats from Russia and repeated accusations the Kremlin was building up forces around Ukraine’s borders.

“We are deadly serious in how we’re going to face the threat that is currently being posed to both Ukraine and potentially to our security,” Ben Wallace said before a second day of talks between the alliance’s defence ministers at its headquarters in Brussels.

“This is not a joke or a light matter. This is a real challenge to the stability of Europe,” he added, before claiming Russia was continuing to build up troops around Ukraine’s borders, despite Moscow’s claims of a pullback.

“I think we have seen the opposite of some of the statements. We’ve seen an increase of troops over the last 48 hours – up to 7,000 … We’ll take them at their word but we’re going to judge Russia by their actions and at the moment, the troop build-up continues,” Wallace said.

Russia to respond to US security proposals imminently

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov says that Moscow will later today send Washington a reply to US proposals on European security.

“We will send this letter to the American side today,” Lavrov told a news conference following talks with Italian counterpart Luigi Di Maio, adding that the response will be made public in “a few hours”.

Russia could drag out Ukraine crisis ‘for months’, UK foreign secretary says

Russia could keep tensions over Ukraine simmering for “months” yet, the UK’s foreign secretary has warned before a visit to Kyiv.

Writing in the UK’s The Daily Telegraph newspaper, Truss said the Kremlin could deliberately extend the crisis “in a brazen ploy to spend weeks more – if not months – subverting Ukraine and challenging Western unity”.

“We cannot allow this situation to become a running sore,” she added.

Truss’s visit to Kyiv will see her hold talks with her Ukrainian counterpart, after which she will head to Warsaw to meet with Poland’s foreign minister. Her whistlestop diplomatic tour will also include a visit to the Munich Security Conference on Saturday.

Russia says troops, tanks returning to bases following drills

Russia’s defence ministry says troops, tanks and other military vehicles are returning from the country’s western military district to their bases after concluding war games.

“A military train carrying personnel and equipment associated with tank units of the western military district began returning to their permanent bases after completing exercises at training grounds,” the ministry said in a statement.

It did not specify where the forces had been deployed but said they would be transported by rail some 1,000 kilometres (620 miles) to their garrisons.

Claims of attacks on Moscow-backed separatists being ‘reported on widely in Russia’

Al Jazeera’s Andrew Simmons, reporting from Kyiv, says a series of alleged attacks by Ukrainian forces on separatist rebels in conflict-hit eastern Ukraine are being “reported on widely in Russia”.

“This is not big news at all, there are times when these sorts of skirmishes are a daily occurrence, but the key to this is the publicity being given to the story in Russia,” he said.

“There is a connection here to the warnings that have been given by the US and NATO about a possible pretext for major action by Russian forces massed around Ukraine’s borders … all it needs is one incident which could be an excuse for Russia to take action, not necessarily a full invasion but action in the disputed areas held by the Russian-backed separatists.”

A Ukrainian serviceman looks back from atop an armored personnel carrier driving near a front line position in the Luhansk area
Russian-backed separatists seized swaths of territory in eastern Ukraine following Russia’s 2014 annexation of the Crimean Peninsula [File: Vadim Ghirda/AP]

Russia announces new military withdrawal from annexed Crimea

Russia has announced a new drawdown of military forces from Crimea.

“Units of the southern military district that ended tactical exercises at training grounds on the Crimean Peninsula are returning by rail to their permanent bases,” the defence ministry said in a statement carried by Russian news agencies.

State television, meanwhile, showed columns of military hardware crossing a recently-constructed bridge connecting the peninsula to the Russian mainland.

Russia offering fast-track passports in Ukraine’s rebel-held areas

More than 720,000 residents of rebel-held areas in eastern Ukraine have received Russian citizenship and passports, The Associated Press reports.

The fast-track procedure is seen by Kyiv as an attempt to underscore Russia’s influence in the region.

Besides the quick path to citizenship, Russia has offered residents of the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk republics membership in the Kremlin’s ruling party and other perks, such as its COVID vaccines or trade preferences for local manufacturers.

Kuleba urged the European Union last week to impose sanctions on Russia for “its illegal mass issuing of Russian passports to Ukrainian citizens”.

‘Day of unity’ held in Ukraine

While tensions continue to simmer, Ukrainians have staged a show of defiance amid fears of a Russian invasion.

The yellow and blue national flag fluttered outside schools, hospitals and many shops on Wednesday to mark a “day of unity” called for by Zelenskyy.

See pictures here.

G20 finance leaders’ meeting begins with Ukraine warning

Finance ministers and central bank governors of G20 nations have kicked off a two-day meeting in the Indonesian capital, Jakarta, with a warning on the Ukraine crisis, saying the escalation of tensions between Russia and the former Soviet republic poses a threat to the global economy’s recovery from the coronavirus pandemic.

“This is not the time for rivalries and creating new tensions that disrupt the … recovery, let alone endanger the safety of the world, as is happening in Ukraine,” Indonesian President Joko Widodo said as he opened the meeting.

“All parties must stop the rivalry and tension,” he added.

Ukraine rebels accuse gov’t forces of mortar attack

Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine have accused government forces of opening fire on territory they control several times in the last 24 hours, adding they were trying to establish if anyone had been hurt or killed.

The assertions were made in a statement issued by representatives of the self-proclaimed Luhansk People’s Republic. It said Ukrainian forces had used mortars, grenade launchers and a machine gun in four separate incidents.

There was no immediate reaction from Ukraine or from the OSCE. Any escalation in the years-long conflict between the Russian-backed separatists and Kyiv could further inflame tensions between Russia and the West.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies