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Russia-Ukraine live updates: Blinken makes urgent address to UN Security Counci

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(NEW YORK) — The United States continues to warn that Russia could invade Ukraine “any day” amid escalating tensions in the region, with President Joe Biden telling reporters Thursday that the threat is now “very high.”

More than 150,000 Russian troops are estimated to be massed near Ukraine’s borders, as U.S. officials have urged all Americans to immediately leave Ukraine.

While Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin claim that some Russian forces have begun to withdraw from near Ukraine’s borders, ABC News learned that Putin had told his military forces to be ready to invade by Wednesday. Speaking to reporters Thursday, Biden said more Russian troops have moved in, contrary to Moscow’s claims. It remains unclear whether Putin has made a decision to attack his ex-Soviet neighbor.

Russia has denied it plans to invade and has demanded the U.S. and NATO bar Ukraine from joining the military alliance.

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Here’s how the news is developing. All times Eastern:

Feb 17, 11:54 am
Blinken calls on Moscow to commit to not invading, meet next week

Secretary of State Antony Blinken closed his remarks to the U.N. Security Council meeting by challenging the Russian Federation to “announce today — with no qualification of equivocation or deflection — that Russia will not invade Ukraine, stated clearly stated plainly, to the world.”

“And then demonstrate it by sending your troops, your tanks, your planes back to their various can hangars and sending your diplomats to the negotiating table,” he added.

Blinken laid out how the U.S. believes Russia will attack Ukraine — but said he would welcome being wrong and for Russia to withdraw.

“Now, I’m mindful that some have called into question our information, recalling previous instances where intelligence ultimately did not bear out,” he said, apparently referring to a similar address then-Secretary of State Colin Powell famously made to the Security Council presenting U.S. intelligence to justify the Iraq War. “But let me be clear, I am here today not to start a war, but to prevent one,” he said, citing allies that agree with U.S. assessments.

“If Russia doesn’t invade Ukraine, then we will be relieved that Russia changed course and proved our predictions wrong. That would be a far better outcome in the course we’re currently on. And we’ll gladly accept any criticism that anyone directs at us,” Blinken said.

He continued, “Russia can still make if there’s any truth to his claim that is committed to diplomacy. Diplomacy is the only responsible way to resolve this crisis”

Blinken also said that he sent a letter to Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov earlier Thursday proposing that they meet next week in Europe following their talks in recent weeks “to discuss the steps that we can take to resolve this crisis without conflict” and that U.S. is also proposing meetings at the NATO Russia Council and the OSC Permanent Council.

“These meetings can pave the way for a summit with key leaders in the context of de-escalation to reach understandings on our mutual security concerns,” he added.

Feb 17, 11:28 am
Blinken to UN Security Council: ‘I am here today not to start war, but to prevent one’

Secretary of State Antony Blinken, changing plans at the last minute to speak at a U.N. Security Council meeting Thursday, implored the group to unite to address what he called “Russia’s looming aggression against Ukraine.”

“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, in a Cold War, are under threat: 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 it will associate the principle of national sovereignty,” he said.

Blinken repeated that the U.S. and Western allies do not see Russian troops drawing down on the ground, but that, “Our information indicates clearly that these forces, including ground troops, aircraft ships, are preparing to launch an attack against Ukraine in the coming days,” he said.

He said that Russia is already taking steps “down the path to war,” first with its plans to “manufacture a pretext for its attack.”

“This could be a violent event that Russia will blame on Ukraine, or an outrageous accusation that Russia will level against the Ukrainian government. We don’t know exactly what formula. It could be a fabricated so-called terrorist bombing inside Russia. The invented discovery of the mass grades. A staged drone strike against civilians, or a fake — even a real attack — using chemical weapons,” he said.

He said, then, the would see the “highest levels of the Russian government may theatrically convene emergency meetings to address the so-called crisis.”

“Next, the attack is planned to begin. Russian missiles and bombs will drop across Ukraine. Communications will be jammed. Cyber attacks will shut down key Ukrainian institutions. After that, Russian tanks and soldiers will advance on key targets that have already been identified and mapped out in detailed plans,” he said, reiterating the U.S. belief that Ukraine’s capital Kyiv, a city of 2.8 million people, is a target.

He added that the U.S. has intelligence “Russia will target specific groups of Ukrainians.”

“Let me be clear,” Blinken said, “I am here today not to start a war, but to prevent one.”

Feb 17, 11:08 am
Russia’s response to the US teases ‘military-technical measures’

In a written response on the discussion over Moscow’s demands that NATO not expand, Russia said the U.S. has not given a “constructive reply” to Russia’s demands and that Moscow might resort to “military-technical measures.”

“We can acknowledge that the U.S. side did not give a constructive answer to the basic elements of a draft treaty with the U.S. on security guarantees, drawn up by the Russian side,” the document given to the U.S. on Thursday and translated from Russian by Interfax said. “In the absence of the American side’s willingness to negotiate firm and legally binding guarantees of our security by the U.S. and its allies, Russia will have to respond, including through implementing military-technical measures,” it said.

As the West has warned of Russian misinformation serving as potential for a false flag pretext, the document from the Russian Federation accused the U.S. and allies of spin, instead.

“The package nature of Russian proposals has been ignored, from which ‘convenient’ topics have been deliberately chosen, which, in turn, are ‘twisted’ in the direction of creating advantages for the United States and its allies,” the response said.

“We propose to work together to develop a new ‘security equation,'” it added.

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.

-ABC News’ Tanya Stukalova

Feb 17, 10:31 am
Zelenskyy visits Ukrainian troops on front line in Donetsk

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on Thursday visited Ukrainian troops on the front line of defense in the Donetsk region, where the Ukrainian government says intense shelling continues.

“I am proud of your heroism,” Zelenskyy told the soldiers. “You defend Ukraine’s independence and decently rebuff the enemy. We feel constant pride in our defenders.”

Earlier Thursday, Zelenskyy had an “urgent” telephone conversation with the head of the European Council, during which he emphasized that Ukraine has seen no evidence of withdrawal of Russian troops from its borders, according to a press release from the Ukrainian president’s office.

Zelenskyy also reported a “significant number” of ceasefire violations by Russian-backed separatists forces in eastern Ukraine, including the shelling of a kindergarten in the government-controlled village of Stanytsia Luhansk, which he called a “large provocation,” according to the press release.

Feb 17, 10:10 am
US accuses Russia of using UN meeting as part of invasion pretext

The Russian mission to the United Nations circulated a 49-page letter Wednesday night that it said included an investigation of atrocities committed by the Ukrainian government in its eastern provinces.

The letter alarmed U.S. officials, who thought it may be part of the false pretext for a Russian invasion that they’ve been publicly warning about for weeks.

“It’s hard to draw any conclusion other than Russia plans to use today’s U.N. Security Council meeting as part of an attempt to establish a pretext for a potential invasion, building upon disinformation and incendiary statements we’ve seen over recent weeks,” a senior administration official told reporters Thursday morning.

The letter, obtained by ABC News, includes a document labeled “Joint Project of the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation and RT News Channel,” which alleges that Ukraine committed war crimes over the last eight years in the Donbas.

“Each of these allegations are categorically false,” the senior administration official said. But they’ve seen a marked increase in them in the past few days and overnight, they added.

But the official stopped short of saying that Russia has fully mobilized to create a false pretext or that an invasion would follow shortly: “The kinds of reports that we’re hearing, the kinds of claims that we’re seeing made in Russian media are exactly the kinds of claims that we have indicated could form the basis of a pretext for a further invasion of Ukraine,” they told reporters.

-ABC News’ Conor FInnegan

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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