(NEW YORK) — The United States is warning that Russia could invade Ukraine “any day” amid escalating tensions in the region.
As many as 150,000 Russian troops are estimated to be massed near Ukraine’s borders and U.S. officials have urged all Americans to leave Ukraine as well as neighboring Belarus and part of Moldvoa.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced Monday that the nation was shuttering its embassy in Kyiv and “temporarily” relocating the small group of diplomats left in Ukraine to the western city of Lviv, citing the “rapid acceleration in the buildup of Russian forces.”
But Ukrainian officials have said they do not see signs of a Russian attack as soon as Wednesday — the date reportedly given to NATO allies — and called for a day of unity instead.
Russia has demanded the U.S. and NATO bar Ukraine from joining the military alliance and pull back troops from Eastern European member states, while denying it has plans to invade Ukraine.
Here’s how the news is developing. All times Eastern:
Feb 15, 11:28 am
Blinken talks with Russian counterpart
In a signal that the door to diplomacy could remain open, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov spoke again Tuesday morning, according to a senior State Department official.
The two had already spoken on Saturday and agreed to connect again in the coming days, the official said, as the two governments have delivered mixed messages on the extent of Russia’s military presence and intent on Ukraine’s border.
Meanwhile, President Joe Biden had a phone call with French President Emmanuel Macron, according to a White House official, while Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has departed Washington for Brussels for NATO meetings.
-ABC News’ Conor Finnegan and Sarah Kolinovsky
Feb 15, 11:08 am
Putin comments on ‘partial withdrawal’ of Russian troops
Russian President Vladimir Putin commented on what he called Russia’s “partial withdrawal” of troops near Ukraine on Tuesday, one day after Pentagon officials said Russia had sent even more troops to the border region over the last 24 to 48 hours.
Putin delivered mixed messages at a press conference in Moscow, suggesting he does not consider the crisis to be resolved as Russia’s key demand that Ukraine is barred from joining NATO has not been met. But he also said there were items in the U.S. responses “to discuss,” specifically noting Russia is ready to talk about the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty, which the Trump administration withdrew from, among other “military confidence-building measures.”
“We want to resolve this question right now. In the nearest future, in the course of the negotiating process, with peaceful means,” Putin said.
Asked about some Russian troops pulling back on Tuesday, Putin hinted there could still be room for escalation but added, “we will strive to agree on the issues which have been put forward by us using the diplomatic path.”
“How will Russia act next? According to plan!” he said.
-ABC News’ Patrick Reevell
Feb 15, 10:23 am
Putin reacts to Russian parliament vote to recognize Donbas
Russian President Vladimir Putin indicated Tuesday that he will not immediately recognize two Russian-controlled breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine as independent.
Putin said he believes the idea has the support of the majority of Russians but that he thinks Russia should continue to try to resolve the conflict with Ukraine through the Minsk peace agreements.
The Minsk accords signed in 2014 and 2015 were aimed at ending the ongoing conflict between the Ukrainian army and the Russian-backed separatists forces in an area of southeastern Ukraine known as the Donbas. But Putin’s recognition of the regions would amount to Russia formally withdrawing from the agreement.
Putin’s comments suggest that while he doesn’t intend to immediately move to recognize the regions, he might keep the action as a threat hanging over negotiations with Ukraine and the West. He painted the parliament vote as the expression of lawmakers rather than something directed by the Kremlin.
“We must do everything to resolve the problems in Donbas but, as before, starting from the possibilities from the Minsk agreement that have not been realized to their end,” Putin said Tuesday.
Meanwhile, the leader of one of the regions welcomed the Russian parliament vote but fell short of calling on Putin to take the step.
“We thank the deputies of the State Duma for the results of today’s vote,” Denis Pushilin, head of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic said in a statement Tuesday. “With that, we will treat with respect and understanding any decision taken by the top leadership of the Russian Federation.”
Pushilin called the initiative “timely,” given what he claimed was the threat from Ukraine, which he alleged was massing troops near the regions and showed Kyiv has no intention of fulfilling the Minsk agreements or resolving the conflict peacefully.
-ABC News’ Patrick Reevell
Feb 15, 9:19 am
US assessing Russia’s claim of withdrawing some troops
The United States is assessing Russia’s claim that it is withdrawing some troops from Ukraine’s borders, U.S. Ambassador to NATO Julianne Smith said Tuesday.
During a press briefing at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Smith cast some doubt on the claim after Russia made similar statements in late December.
“All I can say is we’ll have to verify that and take a look,” Smith told reporters. “We want to make sure we understand what they’re talking about when they say de-escalation, and we want to verify that that is in fact what’s happening. So stand by, we’ll obviously take a look at that.”
When asked again whether some Russian forces were in fact pulling back, Smith reiterated: “I can’t say yes or no. I can’t say really anything about it at this moment because this is something that we’ll have to look at closely and verify in the days ahead.”
NATO’s defense ministers, including U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, will meet Wednesday to discuss deployments within the military alliance and a “variety of contingencies,” according to Smith, who noted that NATO “will continue to determine whether or not additional enhancements might be necessary.”
While any Russian troop withdrawals could be a sign of de-escalation, the law passed Tuesday in Russia’s parliament calling on President Vladimir Putin to recognize Russian-controlled breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine as independent would be a “new shift in the escalation,” Smith said, adding that the U.S. and NATO “would monitor that very closely” and determine its response.
“If they proceed with this, then I think it’s a clear violation of Ukraine’s territorial integrity and its sovereignty, and it’s also a violation of the Minsk agreement,” she told reporters, “and so that would obviously be a new shift in the escalation.”
As the U.S. and NATO await Russia’s written proposals on issues like arms control and military exercises, Smith again called on Russia to engage meaningfully in talks.
“Look, we can spend the rest of the year going back and forth exchanging letters,” she said, “but really what’s important is the best way to proceed would be for us to sit down at the table again.”
Until then, Smith said they do not know what Putin will decide.
“We do not understand fundamentally — none of us do — what is inside President Putin’s head,” she added, “and so we cannot make any guess about where all of this is headed.”
Feb 15, 8:32 am
NATO: No sign yet of Russian de-escalation
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said Tuesday that the military alliance has “not seen any signs of reduced Russian military presence on the borders of Ukraine.”
“So far, we have not seen any de-escalation on the ground,” Stoltenberg told reporters at NATO’s headquarters in Brussels. “But we will continue to monitor and to follow closely what Russia is doing, and the signs coming from Moscow about a willingness to continue to engage in diplomatic efforts — that gives some reason for cautious optimism. But we will, of course, follow very closely what’s happening on the ground and whether this is reflected in some real de-escalation of the Russian military build-up in and around Ukraine.”
Feb 15, 8:20 am
US warns of Russian cyberattack alongside Ukraine invasion
Top cybersecurity officials from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the FBI have warned of potential attacks on American cyber infrastructure in concert with a physical invasion of Ukraine, according to a source familiar with the matter.
The source told ABC News that the warning came Monday on a call with state and local officials — but it’s not new. On Friday, the Homeland Security Department’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) explicitly warned of Russian cyberattacks and made a veiled mention of the ongoing geopolitical climate.
“The Russian government has used cyber as a key component of their force projection over the last decade, including previously in Ukraine in the 2015 timeframe,” the CISA said in an online post. “The Russian government understands that disabling or destroying critical infrastructure—including power and communications—can augment pressure on a country’s government, military and population and accelerate their acceding to Russian objectives.”
U.S. officials have said a Russian invasion of Ukraine could happen “at any time” and that they believe Ukraine could also be a target of an offensive cyberattack. Ukraine has already been the target of what some Ukrainian officials believed was a Russian cyberattack earlier this year, when suspected Russian hackers defaced Ukrainian government websites.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has been warning in bulletins as early as January that there could be a cyberattack tied to a possible Russian invasion.
Feb 15, 7:02 am
Russia’s parliament asks Putin to recognize breakaway regions in Ukraine
Russia’s parliament voted for a law on Tuesday that calls on President Vladimir Putin to recognize two Russian-controlled breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine as independent.
The measure is a formal appeal to Putin to recognize the self-declared Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics, in an area of southeastern Ukraine known as the Donbas, where Russian-backed separatists forces have been battling the Ukrainian army since 2014.
Such recognition would open a path for Russia to formally annex the two regions as it did the Crimean Peninsula almost eight years ago. It’s now up to Putin to decide whether to go through with it.
Two bills were initially put forward for a vote in Russia’s parliament — one by the Communist Party and the other by Putin’s ruling United Russia. The first would have the request sent to the president immediately, while the second would have sought consultations with the foreign ministry and other government agencies before appealing directly to Putin. Ultimately, parliament voted for the first bill.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s office called the vote an “escalatory action.” Ukraine’s foreign ministry has warned that it will consider Russia recognizing the separatist regions as a withdrawal from the Minsk peace agreement reached in 2015, which was supposed to end the conflict in Donbas that broke out a year earlier.
Feb 15, 5:41 am
Ukraine reacts to Russia announcing withdrawal: ‘We’ll believe it when we see it’
Ukrainian Minister of Foreign Affairs Dmytro Kuleba reacted to Russia’s announcement Tuesday that it is withdrawing some troops from the border, saying his country will “believe it when we see it.”
“There are constantly various statements coming from the Russian Federation, so we have a rule: we’ll believe it when we see it,” Kuleba said during a televised briefing Tuesday. “When we see the withdrawal, we’ll believe in de-escalation.”
Feb 15, 5:25 am
Russia says some troops will return to base
Some Russian troops positioned near the border with Ukraine will begin returning to their bases Tuesday after completing “exercises,” according to the Russian Ministry of Defense.
The units set to return are from Russia’s Southern and Western Military Districts, the defense ministry said Tuesday. But there are troops from other military districts massed on the border. Still, if some troops do pull back, it would potentially be a key signal that the crisis with Ukraine will not escalate.
Russian state media then released video purportedly showing tank troops loading up in neighboring Belarus to return home as well as tanks in southwestern Russia moving back. A spokesperson for Russia’s Southern Military District told state media Tuesday that some personnel have begun leaving Crimea for their permanent bases following the completion of drills.
In 2014, Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and established two federal subjects there, the Republic of Crimea and the federal city of Sevastopol. But the international community still recognizes the territories as being part of Ukraine.
Russian Minister of Defense Sergey Shoygu told Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday that the military exercises would end “in the near future.” There are still drills being conducted in neighboring Belarus as well as the Black Sea that are due to end Feb. 20.
Maria Zakharova, spokesperson for the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said in a post on her official Facebook page on Tuesday that Feb. 15 “will go down in history as the day the Western propoganda war failed.”
“Disgraced and destroyed without a single shot fired,” Zakharova added.
Feb 15, 4:29 am
White House warns invasion could start ‘at any time’
While the United States believes a path of diplomacy remains “open” to Russia, a White House official warned that a Russian invasion of Ukraine “could begin at any time.”
Answering a question from ABC News’ Cecilia Vega during a press briefing Monday, White House Principal Deputy Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said the U.S. government is so far seeing “more and more” Russian troops arrive on the border with Ukraine.
“In the past 10 days or so, when you look at what is happening at the border of Ukraine, there, we are seeing more than 100,000 troops there and it’s just been an every day more and more troops,” Jean-Pierre said.
“So we are certainly open to having conversations and seeing a de-escalation,” she added. “That door is open for diplomacy and this is up to President Putin. He has to make that decision. It is his decision to make on which direction he wants to take this.”
Jean-Pierre noted that “it remains unclear which path Russia will choose to take.”
When asked about the imminency of the situation, she said: “We are in the window when an invasion could begin at any time.”
“I’m not going to comment on the intelligence information,” she added, “except to say that it could begin this week.”
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