Latest Ukraine updates: Ukraine Europe’s ‘shield’ against Russia

Russia-Ukraine news from February 18: President Zelenskyy says Ukraine deserves stronger international support.

Volodymyr Zelenskyy, president of Ukraine, stands with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, right, on Saturday
President Volodymyr Zelenskyy stands with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, right, on Saturday ahead of speaking at the Munich Security Summit [Sven Hoppe via AP]

Ukraine is Europe’s “shield” against the Russian military and deserves stronger international support, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy says.

His comments came as pro-Russia separatist leaders in eastern Ukraine ordered a full military mobilisation while Western leaders made increasingly dire warnings that a Russian invasion of its neighbour appeared imminent.

“For eight years, Ukraine has been a shield,” Zelenskyy told a security conference in the German city of Munich on Saturday.

President Vladimir Putin, meanwhile, supervised major military drills involving Russia’s nuclear forces.

Hello, I’m Linah Alsaafin and welcome to Al Jazeera’s continuing coverage of the Ukraine-Russia crisis.

Hello, I’m Umut Uras, taking over the live coverage at 13:00 GMT.

The live blog is now closed, thank you for joining us. Here are the updates for February 19:

OSCE reports surge in number of explosions in east Ukraine

Two regions in eastern Ukraine where government and separatist forces have been fighting since 2014 have been hit by more than 1,400 explosions, monitors for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) said, pointing to a surge in shelling.

The two Russian-backed, self-proclaimed republics in Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk regions are at the centre of a surge in tensions between Moscow and the West over a vast Russian military buildup near Ukraine.

The OSCE’s Special Monitoring Mission that is deployed in the conflict zone said it had logged 553 explosions in Donetsk.

NATO relocates Ukraine staff to Lviv and Brussels for safety reasons

NATO has relocated Ukraine staff from the capital Kyiv to Lviv in the west of the country and to Brussels for safety reasons, according to a NATO official.

“The safety of our personnel is paramount, so staff have been relocated to Lviv and Brussels. The NATO offices in Ukraine remain operational,” the official told the Reuters news agency, without giving any details on the number and jobs of those moved.

Lviv is in the far west of Ukraine. Many countries have moved diplomats there from Kyiv further in the east.

World Bank readies $350m Ukraine disbursement

The World Bank has said it is readying a $350m disbursement to Ukraine that the group’s board will consider by the end of March as part of a plan for short- and long-term financing for the country.

In a meeting with Ukraine’s Zelenskyy on Saturday, World Bank President David Malpass said the group will continue to support the Ukrainian people and economy for short- and long-term financing needs, the group said in a statement.

The leaders met in Munich as Russia’s strategic nuclear forces held exercises overseen by President Vladimir Putin, and Washington accused Russian troops near Ukraine’s border’s of being “poised to strike”.

UK, Germany agree Russia needs punishing if Ukraine invaded

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz have met and agreed on the need for more diplomacy to stop Russian leader Vladimir Putin from ordering an invasion of Ukraine, and strong responses if Russia does attack.

“The Prime Minister and Chancellor Scholz resolved to redouble efforts to reach a diplomatic resolution to prevent unnecessary bloodshed,” Johnson’s office said in a statement.

“Should President Putin make the catastrophic miscalculation to further breach Ukrainian sovereignty, allies must put in place a comprehensive response which strikes at the heart of Russia’s strategic interests,” the statement added.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz (R) and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson pose
Germany’s Scholz and the United Kingdom’s Johnson pose for a picture before their meeting [File: Sven Hoppe/AFP]

Poland ready to provide more defensive weapons to Ukraine: PM

Poland is ready to provide Kyiv with additional defensive weapons, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki has said.

“We are ready to provide additional supplies of defensive weapons … weapons that are to be used to defend [Ukraine’s] territory, defend cities, defend people, places where they are against the aggressions of the Russian army,” Morawiecki said during a televised news conference in Munich.

Finland likens Russia’s treatment of Ukraine to Soviet threats

Finland’s president has compared Russia’s current treatment of Ukraine to an attempt by Soviet dictator Josef Stalin to threaten and divide Finland before invading in 1939.

“All what happens in Ukraine, all what happens in the Western world at the moment, reminds me of what happened in Finland,” Sauli Niinisto told the security conference in Munich.

“Stalin thought that he will split the nation and it’s easy to go and invade Finland. Totally the opposite happened. People united, and we see the same in Ukraine.”

Runoff likely in Finnish presidential poll
Sauli Niinisto says Putin’s Russia acts like Stalin’s Soviet Republic [File: AP]

‘Zelenskyy’s Munich visit is an act of defiance’

Al Jazeera’s Diplomatic Editor James Bays, reporting from Munich, has said that the NATO member states speak in one voice on their support for Ukraine against the Russian threat.

“The unity of NATO is the strongest today in recent years,” he said, adding that the real test will be NATO’s unified action in case of a future Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Bays said that President Zelenskyy’s presence in Munich on Saturday despite US warnings of security risks is an act of defiance to Russia’s Vladimir Putin.

“His message in Munich was, ‘I’m not scared, my people are not scared’,” Bays also said.

Naive to think fulfilling Russian demands will bring peace: Polish PM

Complying with Russian demands is not the way to achieve peace in Europe, the Polish prime minister has said, amid rising tension surrounding the situation in Ukraine.

“It is naive to believe that fulfilling some of the demands of Russia will lead to peaceful cohabitation, peaceful coexistence,” Mateusz Morawiecki said at the Munich Security Conference.

UK’s Truss: Ukraine’s ‘worst-case scenario’ could come next week

Ukraine could face the worst-case scenario of a Russian invasion as soon as next week, and Europe faced one of its most perilous security situations since the early 20th century, British foreign minister Liz Truss has said.

“That worst-case scenario could happen as early as next week. The reality is that Russia does want to turn the clock back,” Truss told a security conference in Munich.

“In the last week alone, we’ve seen a doubling of disinformation, and we’ve seen false flag operations in the Donbas region. I’m afraid that Russia has shown that they are not serious about diplomacy,” she added.

Britain's Foreign Secretary Liz Truss walking
The United Kingdom’s newly appointed Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, left, leaves from 10 Downing Street in central London on September 15, 2021 [Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP]

G7 sees no sign of reduced Russian activity near Ukraine

Foreign ministers from the G7 group of nations has said that they see no evidence that Russia is reducing military activity near Ukraine’s borders and remain “gravely concerned” about the situation.

“We call on Russia to choose the path of diplomacy, to de-escalate tensions, to substantively withdraw military forces from the proximity of Ukraine’s borders and to fully abide by international commitments,” the countries said in a joint statement released by the United Kingdom’s’s foreign ministry.

“As a first step, we expect Russia to implement the announced reduction of its military activities along Ukraine’s borders. We have seen no evidence of this reduction,” they added.

Ukraine leader proposes meeting with Putin

Ukraine’s leader has proposed a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin aimed at averting an invasion by Russia of Ukraine.

“I do not know what the Russian president wants. For this reason, I propose that we meet,” Zelenskyy told an international security forum in Munich.

Western powers should drop their policy of “appeasement” towards Moscow, he added. “We have no weapons and no security … but we have a right – a right to demand a shift from a policy of appeasement to one ensuring security and peace.”

Ukraine reports two soldiers killed in separatists shelling

The Ukrainian military said two soldiers were killed and four wounded in shelling by pro-Russian separatists in east Ukraine, where a flare-up of violence this week sparked fears it could be the trigger for Russian military action.

The Ukrainian military said it recorded 70 ceasefire violations by separatists since the start of the day compared with 66 cases during the previous 24 hours.

Separatists opened fire on more than 30 settlements along the front line using heavy artillery, which has been prohibited by agreements aimed at cooling the long-running conflict, it said.

Ukraine is Europe’s ‘shield’ against Russian army

Ukraine is Europe’s “shield” against the Russian military and Kyiv deserves stronger international support, according to President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

Ukraine’s leader told the Munich Security Conference that Ukraine has for years acted as a barrier and protected the continent from Russian advances.

“For eight years, Ukraine has been holding back one of the greatest armies in the world,” Zelenskyy said, in reference to Ukraine’s conflict with Russian-backed separatists.

President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky speaking
Zelenskyy says Ukraine has been holding back one of the greatest armies in the world [File: AP]

Cuba to deepen ties with Russia

Russia and Cuba will deepen ties and explore collaboration in transportation, energy, industry and banking, Cuba’s foreign ministry has said, following a visit from Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Borisov.

In a statement, Cuba’s government expressed support for Russia as tensions mount in Ukraine, and accused longtime rival the United States and its allies of targeting Moscow with what it called a “propaganda war” and sanctions.

Cuba “reiterates its position against the unilateral and unjust sanctions imposed by the West on the Eurasian country and against the expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization towards the Russian borders”.

Lufthansa to suspend flights to Kyiv, Odesa

Germany’s flag carrier Lufthansa is suspending flights to and from the Ukrainian cities of Kyiv and Odesa, a spokesperson has said.

The company will conduct some last flights to those cities during the weekend before suspending flights from Monday until the end of the month, the spokesman said. It will continue to fly to the city of Lviv in western Ukraine.

Lufthansa is constantly monitoring the situation and will decide on further flights at a later date, the spokesperson said.

Germany urges nationals to leave Ukraine

Germany’s foreign ministry has told German nationals to leave Ukraine right away.

“German nationals are urged to leave the country now,” the ministry said in a statement. “A military confrontation is possible at any time.”

Other countries including the United Kingdom and United States have also asked their nationals to depart immediately.

We will spare no diplomatic effort to protect Ukraine: Kuleba

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba has said Ukraine and the US would spare no diplomatic effort to protect Ukraine, after he met US Secretary of State Antony Blinken at the Munich Security Conference.

Kuleba flew to Germany as his country is bracing for a possible military attack from Russia, which has massed more than 100,000 troops near Ukraine’s borders. Russia denies plans to attack.

“Grateful to @SecBlinken for sharing additional data and assessments on Russia’s aggressive plans,” Kuleba tweeted. “Ukraine is now even better prepared for any further scenarios. Ukrainian and American diplomacy will spare no effort to protect Ukraine. The US stands by Ukraine resolutely.”

Ukraine's Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba
Kuleba met US’s Blinken at the Munich Security Conference on Saturday [File Reuters]

Lavrov: Ignoring Russian demands is bad for stability

Russia’s top diplomat has told France’s foreign minister that ignoring Moscow’s security demands was bad for stability in Europe and elsewhere, Russia’s foreign ministry said, as tensions surged in eastern Ukraine.

Sergey Lavrov, Russia’s veteran foreign minister, told France’s Jean-Yves Le Drian on the phone that all countries should comply with their commitments to ensure the principle of “equal and indivisible security”, the ministry said.

“Ignoring Russia’s legitimate rights in this area adversely affects the stability not only on the European continent, but also in the world,” it said in a statement.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov
Sergey Lavrov talked to France’s Jean-Yves Le Drian on the phone [File: Alexei Nikolsky, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP]

Ukraine will not respond to provocations, Zelenskyy says

Zelenskyy said Ukraine would not respond to provocations in the eastern Donbas region and would strive to establish peace through diplomacy.

“We do not respond to provocations and strive to establish peace exclusively through diplomacy,” Zelenskyy wrote on Instagram.

UK’s Johnson says West needs unity on Russia

The West will need an overwhelming display of unity if it is to persuade Putin to avoid a “catastrophic” invasion of Ukraine, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said.

“There is still a chance to avoid unnecessary bloodshed, but it will require an overwhelming display of western solidarity beyond anything we have seen in recent history,” Johnson said in a written statement to media.

Harris warns Russia of huge financial costs if it invades Ukraine

The United States, together with its allies, will impose significant and “unprecedented” economic costs on Russia if it further invades Ukraine, Vice President Kamala Harris said, adding that national borders should not be changed by force.

“We have prepared economic measures that will be swift, severe and united,” Harris said. “We will target Russia’s financial institutions and key industries.”

The US would also further reinforce the eastern flank of NATO in the event of a Russian invasion of Ukraine, Harris said at the Munich Security Conference – which she attended in person.

NATO voices fears of Russia-China axis

Jens Stoltenberg said Russia and China were seeking to impose their own order on the world, as Beijing backed Moscow over its showdown with NATO.

“For the first time we now see Beijing joining Moscow in calling on NATO to stop admitting new members,” noted the NATO chief, speaking at the Munich Security Conference.

“It is an attempt to control the fate of free nations, to rewrite the international rulebook and impose their own authoritarian models of governance,” he warned.

Russia begins strategic nuclear exercises with ballistic missiles

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has ordered the start of strategic nuclear exercises involving launches of ballistic missiles, the RIA news agency cited the Kremlin as saying.

Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov confirmed the drills had begun.

Separately, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, a close ally of Putin, took part in military exercises alongside Putin from a situation centre in the Kremlin, Belarusian state media reported.

Inside Story: Is war in Ukraine inevitable?

Diplomatic talks between the US and its NATO allies and Russia have made no progress in defusing tensions over Ukraine.

So is a full-blown conflict unavoidable?

Lithuania calls for US troops to boost Baltic states’ security

Lithuania’s president has called for boosting the security of the Baltic states with US troops, after meeting with US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin in Vilnius.

“The Russian military buildup at the eastern NATO border is changing the security situation,” President Gitanas Nauseda said in a statement published after the meeting.

“It is critically important to strengthen the [Baltic states’] regional security with additional troops from the United States and quicken cooperation in military procurement,” he added.

Scholz says Russian attack on Ukraine would be ‘serious mistake’

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said a Russian attack on Ukraine would be a “serious mistake” with high “political, economic and geostrategic costs”.

There was no justification for some 100,000 soldiers massing on Ukraine’s borders, he told the Munich Security Conference in a livestreamed speech.

The West was nonetheless ready to negotiate over Russia’s security demands “without being naive”.

“We will differentiate clearly between untenable demands and legitimate security interests,” he added.

Russia makes demands that it knows NATO cannot fulfil, Stoltenberg says

NATO’s secretary-general told the Munich Security Conference that Moscow was putting forward security demands that the Kremlin knew NATO could never meet.

“The danger is now the combination of this massive military build-up with the very threatening rhetoric, putting forward demands they know we cannot meet and say: If we don’t meet them, there will be military consequences,” Stoltenberg said.

“This is a new normal, that we have a Russia which is openly contesting core values for European security and then demonstrating their will to use force or the threat of force to get their will,” he added.

Russian region declares emergency over Ukraine refugees

Rostov, a Russian region bordering Ukraine declared a state of emergency, citing growing numbers of people arriving from separatist-held areas in Ukraine after they received evacuation orders.

“Given the trend of increasing numbers of people arriving, we consider it appropriate to introduce a state of emergency,” Rostov’s governor Vasily Golubev said, according to Russian news agencies.

The current head of Russia’s emergencies ministry said some 400 people as well as 150 vehicles, were involved in operations to receive people arriving from separatist territory.

Emergency services in the Donetsk separatist region said earlier today that more than 6,600 people have been evacuated.

Ukraine reports 12 ceasefire violations by separatists on Saturday

The Ukrainian military said it had recorded 12 ceasefire violations by pro-Russian separatists in east Ukraine morning after 66 cases over the previous 24 hours.

Separatists opened fire on more than 20 settlements, using heavy artillery – 82 and 120 millimetre-calibre mortar shells – which have been banned by Minsk agreements, the military said on its Facebook page.

Following heavy shelling in the early hours of Saturday, Al Jazeera’s Charles Stratford went to the town of Novoselovka, in eastern Ukraine to speak to people from the area.

“Villagers said this was the heaviest shelling they have experienced here in years,” Stratford said, adding there were reports of damage in a nearby village.

Russia’s thinking ‘may cost it a prosperous future’: von der Leyen

Moscow’s threats towards Ukraine could reshape the entire international system, the chief of the European Union’s executive said, warning Moscow that its thinking from “a dark past” could cost Russia a prosperous future.

“The world has been watching in disbelief as we face the largest build-up of troops on European soil since the darkest days of the Cold War, because the events of these days could reshape the entire international order,” Ursula von der Leyen told the Munich Security Conference.

US VP Harris to urge Russia against Ukraine invasion

In addition to the US vice president meeting with the Ukrainian president in Munich, Kamala Harris will also deliver a highly anticipated speech addressed to Putin.

According to a senior US administration official who spoke to reporters on the condition of anonymity, Harris will warn Russia that an invasion would likely lead to an even bigger NATO footprint on its doorstep, and that it will face huge financial costs if it invades Ukraine.

Her message will, however, make clear the US remains open to diplomacy “even at this late hour,” the official said, even as Biden and other administration officials have given dire warnings that the window for diplomacy is narrow.

Men aged 18-55 not allowed to leave separatist-controlled Luhansk: Rebel leader

Al Jazeera’s Charles Stratford, reporting from Mariupol in eastern Ukraine, said the leader of the Luhansk separatist region, Leonid Pasechnik, has banned all men aged 18 to 55 from leaving the area following a general mobilisation order.

“Another very worrying development there on the back of the announcement yesterday from [separatist] leaders of what they describe as an evacuation,” he said.

Ukraine leader flying to Munich despite invasion fear

Zelenskyy has not changed his plans to personally attend the Munich Security Conference, his office said.

In a statement, his office said the situation in Ukraine’s east “remains under full control”.

Zelenskyy will meet with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and US Vice President Kamala Harris.

“Volodymyr Zelenskyy expects concrete agreements concerning the delivery to our country of additional military and financial support,” his office said, adding that he would return to Kyiv later on Saturday.

Ukraine reports a soldier killed in separatists’ shelling

The Ukrainian military said a soldier was killed in shelling by pro-Russian separatists in east Ukraine.

The Ukrainian military said on its Facebook page that it had recorded 19 ceasefire violations by the separatists since the start of the day compared with 66 cases over the previous 24 hours.

Separatists opened fire on more than 20 settlements, using heavy artillery, which has been banned by Minsk agreements, the military said.

Ukraine’s Luhansk rebel leader declares general mobilisation

The leader of the Luhansk separatist region in eastern Ukraine has followed Donetsk in issuing a general mobilisation order.

“I rule to declare a general mobilisation on the territory of the Luhansk People’s Republic,” said the decree, which was signed by the region’s head Leonid Pasechnik.

Ukraine rebel leader announces ‘general mobilisation’

Denis Pushilin, the leader of the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic – a breakaway region in Ukraine – has claimed his region’s forces had prevented attacks he said were planned by Kyiv, and that the Ukrainian army had continued attacks

“I urge my fellow citizens who are in the reserves to come to military conscription offices. Today I signed a decree on general mobilisation,” he said in a video statement.

“Together, we will achieve for all of us the victory we desire and need. We will protect Donbas and all Russian people,” Pushilin added.

The announcement came as a mass evacuation of women, children and the elderly from the rebel-held territories in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions to neighbouring Russia was under way.

Russia rejects claims it was responsible for cyberattack on Ukraine

Russia has rejected US allegations that it was responsible for cyberattacks on Ukrainian banking and government websites as baseless, the Russian embassy in the United States said on Twitter.

“We categorically reject these baseless statements of the administration and note that Russia has nothing to do with the mentioned events and in principle has never conducted and does not conduct any ‘malicious’ operations in cyberspace,” it said.

US Deputy National Security Adviser Anne Neuberger said on Friday that Russian military intelligence was behind the recent spate of distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks that briefly knocked Ukrainian banking and government websites offline.

War fears mount as Putin to oversee drills, Zelenskyy to meet allies

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin is set to oversee major military drills along Ukraine’s borders, while his Ukrainian counterpart Volodymyr Zelenskyy is due to travel to Germany to meet Western leaders, including US Vice President Kamala Harris.

The Kremlin continues to say it has no plans to attack, despite Washington saying a Russian invasion could happen within days.

You can read updates from Friday, February 18 here.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies