(NEW YORK) — The United States continues to warn that Russia could invade Ukraine “any day” amid escalating tensions in the region, with Secretary of State Antony Blinken telling ABC News Wednesday the U.S. has seen “no meaningful pullback” of Russian forces and that Russian President Vladimir Putin Putin could “pull the trigger” at any point.
More than 150,000 Russian troops are estimated to be massed near Ukraine’s borders, U.S. President Joe Biden said Tuesday, as U.S. officials have urged all Americans to immediately leave Ukraine.
While Putin and the Kremlin claim that Russia has started to withdraw some troops from near Ukraine’s borders, ABC News has learned Putin had told his military forces to be ready to invade by Wednesday. It remains unclear whether he has made a decision to attack his neighbor. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, meanwhile, celebrated a national “day of unity” Wednesday.
Russia has denied it plans to invade and has demanded the U.S. and NATO bar Ukraine from joining the military alliance.
Here’s how the news is developing Thursday. All times Eastern:
Feb 17, 9:34 am
Biden says he believes Putin will go through with invasion
President Joe Biden told ABC News Chief White House Correspondent Cecilia Vega on Thursday morning that he believes Russian President Vladimir Putin will go through with an invasion of Ukraine within days.
“My sense is this will happen in the next several days,” Biden said.
The president accused Russia of engaging in a “false flag operation” and said that despite the claims of pulling troops back, the Kremlin has actually moved more troops closer to Ukraine’s border.
Feb 17, 9:22 am
Russia insists some troops are returning to base
Russia insisted again Thursday that some troops massed near Ukraine are returning to base, far from the border.
Russian Ministry of Defense spokesman Igor Konashenkov said in a statement that units from the Western and Southern Military Districts, which were stationed in western Russia and Crimea, are now moving back to their permanent bases. He said Russian troops taking part in drills in Belarus will also return to base once they finish the exercises this weekend.
Konashenkov noted that the first units have already arrived in Nizhny Novgorod, Chechnya and Dagestan, hundreds of miles from the border with Ukraine.
Feb 17, 9:07 am
US receives Russia’s response on NATO security guarantees
The United States has received a response from Russia regarding the discussion over Moscow’s demands for security guarantees that NATO not expand, a senior official with the U.S. Department of State said Thursday.
“We can confirm that we have received a response from the Russian Federation,” the official said. “It was delivered to Ambassador Sullivan in Moscow today.”
The U.S. government, at Russia’s insistence, sent written responses to two draft treaties Moscow published demanding guarantees that Ukraine will never join NATO and that the military alliance pull back its infrastructure from Eastern European countries that joined after the Cold War. Washington rejected those guarantees as non-starters but offered to discuss some confidence-building measures.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said earlier Thursday that Moscow was planning to send its formal response to the Washington soon.
Feb 17, 8:30 am
US ambassador to UN: ‘Russia is moving toward an imminent invasion’
U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield warned Thursday that Russia appears to be readying for an “imminent invasion” of neighboring Ukraine.
“The evidence on the ground is that Russia is moving toward an imminent invasion,” Thomas-Greenfield told reporters during a background briefing call. “This is a crucial moment.”
She said that’s why she asked U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken “to come speak directly to the U.N. Security Council on his way to Munich about the serious situation in Ukraine.”
“Our goal is to convey the gravity of the situation,” she added. “That’s why Secretary Blinken is coming to New York to signal our intense commitment to diplomacy, to offer and emphasize the path toward de-escalation and to make it clear to the world that we are doing everything — everything -– we can to prevent a war.”
Blinken has already boarded his flight to Munich but will be flying to New York City first to address the U.N. Security Council session at 10 a.m. ET on Thursday.
Feb 17, 7:34 am
Lukashenko: Russian troops will stay in Belarus ‘as long as necessary’
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko said Thursday that Russian troops will be in his country for “as long as necessary.”
“As long as necessary, the Russian Armed Forces will be here. This is our land, our territory,” Lukashenko told Belarusian state media. “We are working here, studying and will continue to study.”
Further joint exercises of the armed forces of Russia and Belarus will be discussed with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday, according to Lukashenko.
The Belarusian leader has said that any decision on recognizing the self-declared Donetsk and Lugansk people’s republics in a breakaway region of southeastern Ukraine known as Donbas will be made jointly with Russia. He added that this decision will be mutually beneficial.
Lukashenko has also noted that, in his view, if neighboring Ukraine had wanted to end the conflict with the Russian-backed separatists in Donbas, it would have already done so.
Feb 17, 6:25 am
Russia to respond to US on NATO security guarantees
Russia will soon formally respond to the written answers that the United States sent earlier to Moscow’s demands for security guarantees that NATO not enlarge, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Thursday.
The U.S. government, at Russia’s insistence, sent written responses to two draft treaties the Kremlin published demanding guarantees that Ukraine will never join NATO and that the military alliance pull back its infrastructure from Eastern European countries that joined after the Cold War. Washington rejected those guarantees as non-starters but offered to discuss some confidence-building measures.
Lavrov was quoted by Russian state media on Thursday as saying that Moscow is planning to send its formal response “today” and that it will be published “several hours after.”
However, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Grushko told reporters Moscow was “still working on” its response and that the reply would not be sent Thursday.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has said his government will continue to insist on discussing its key demands alongside any of the other issues.
Feb 17, 5:50 am
Ukraine accuses Russia-backed separatists of shelling kindergarten
Ukraine accused Russia-backed separatist forces of shelling a village controlled by Ukrainian government troops and hitting a school there early Thursday.
The Armed Forces of Ukraine said separatists fired upon the southeastern village of Stanytsia Luhanska. The head of the community’s local administration confirmed to ABC News that they were under heavy fire on Thursday morning.
The firing has since ceased, the official told ABC News.
Footage released by Ukrainian media shows a hole blown in the wall of a kindergarten. Meanwhile, pro-Russian accounts on social media posted the footage without context, suggesting it was in a separatist-held area and calling it fake.
Russia-backed separatist authorities in eastern Ukraine have accused the Ukrainian military of a major escalation and of preparing for a full-scale offensive. The reports are headline news in most Russian media.
Feb 17, 5:32 am
Russia-backed separatists claim ‘large-scale’ shelling in Ukraine
Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine claimed a significant deterioration along the front line with Ukrainian government forces on Thursday, accusing Ukraine of launching “large-scale” shelling of civilian areas in the breakaway regions.
Fears that Russia might use such claims as a pretext to launch an invasion remain high, with Thursday’s allegations out of the ordinary. The Ukrainian government has denied any intention to launch an offensive on the separatist-held areas.
Local authorities in the self-declared Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics, in an area of southeastern Ukraine known as the Donbas, accused Ukrainian government forces of shelling nine population centers, using large caliber mortars that are banned by a ceasefire.
The separatists’ military forces issued “emergency statements” Thursday alleging that “the situation along the line of contact has substantially worsened” in recent days. Rodion Leshchenko, a political advisor to the self-proclaimed Luhansk People’s Republic, accused Ukraine of launching a “massive provocation,” allegedly firing 200 times into Donbas.
For the past few weeks, Russian propaganda and the separatists in Donbas have been laying the groundwork to accuse Ukraine of launching an offensive, claiming that the Ukrainian government has been massing its forces and also alleging to have found evidence of atrocities. Russian President Vladimir Putin said earlier this week that he believes “genocide” has occurred in Ukraine.
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