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Russia-Ukraine live updates: Russia-backed separatists announce mass evacuations

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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.”

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Thursday, making urgent remarks to the U.N. Security Council, challenged Moscow to commit to no invasion.

More than 150,000 Russian troops are estimated to be massed near Ukraine’s borders, U.S. officials said. While Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin claim that some troops have begun to withdraw, Biden said more Russian forces 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 issued new demands Thursday that 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 18, 10:52 am
Putin warns of ‘escalation’ in Donbas, urges Ukraine to negotiate with separatists

Russian President Vladimir Putin warned Friday that the situation in eastern Ukraine is escalating, amid fears Moscow is seeking a pretext to attack its ex-Soviet neighbor.

“Unfortunately, right now we are seeing, on the contrary, an escalation of the Donbas situation,” Putin said at a joint press conference in Moscow on Friday, following a meeting with Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko.

Putin reiterated Russia’s demand that the Ukrainian government engage in direct talks with the Russia-backed separatists in Donbas, a breakaway region of southeastern Ukraine.

“All Kyiv has to do is sit down at the negotiating table with Donbas representatives and agree on the political, military, economic and humanitarian measures to end the conflict,” he said. “The sooner it happens the better.”

Russia has demanded for years that Kyiv negotiate with the separatists directly, but Ukraine has always refused because it views them as Kremlin puppets and it would legitimize Moscow’s false narrative that the ongoing conflict is exclusively a civil war and does not involve Russia.

Putin also stated that the United States and other members of NATO “are not disposed to properly accept” Russia’s key demands for security guarantees that Ukraine will never join NATO and that the military alliance pull its troops back from Eastern Europe. He said Moscow will not accept talking about the other proposals the U.S. has put forward without discussing these top requests.

“We are prepared to follow a negotiating track, on the condition that all aspects are considered in a package, not separately from Russia’s principal proposals, whose implementation is an unconditional priority for us,” he told reporters.

Putin also said he “paid no attention” to the reports in Western media of Feb. 16 being the alleged date of a possible Russian invasion of Ukraine that U.S. officials had given, calling it a “hoax.”

“I honestly just didn’t pay attention to it. There are plenty of hoaxes. Constantly reacting to them is more trouble than it’s worth,” he added. “We do whatever we see fit and will do so further down the road. Of course, we watch what is going on in the world and around us. But we have clear and comprehensible guidelines that correspond with the national interests of the people of Russia and the Russian state.”

Meanwhile, Lukashenko insisted that neither Belarus or Russia want a war and blamed the current tensions on the West. He said the massive joint military exercises currently being held in Belarus with Russia are directed at reinforcing their borders due to “growing military danger,” which he claimed was caused in part by Western countries “pumping Ukraine” with weapons.

“With the military danger growing on our borders and Ukraine being pumped with weapons, Belarus and Russia are forced to look for appropriate ways to repel potential attacks,” Lukashenko told reporters.

But the Belarusian leader also warned that, for the first time in decades, Europe is on the edge of a conflict that could “draw in almost the entire continent.”

“You see that it does not depend even on our neighbors, including Ukraine, anymore. It is also obvious to you who the exacerbation of tensions near our borders depends on,” Lukashenko said. “For the first time in decades, we have ended up on the verge of a conflict, which, unfortunately, is capable of drawing in almost the entire continent, like a vortex.”

“Today, we’re witnessing, in all its glory, irresponsibility and, forgive my frankness, the stupidity of a number of Western politicians,” he added, “and the behavior denying logic and reasonable explanations of the leaders of our neighboring states and their downright morbid desire to walk right on the edge.”

Feb 18, 9:55 am
Blinken: US ‘deeply concerned’ Russia ‘has embarked on’ wrong path

The United States is “deeply concerned” that Russia “has embarked on” the wrong path, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Friday.

Speaking to reporters at the Munich Security Conference in Germany, Blinken said Russia has deployed “additional forces” near neighboring Ukraine, “including leading edge forces that would be part of any aggression.” When asked about the reports of more shelling in eastern Ukraine, Blinken said it’s “part of a scenario that is already in play” for Moscow to claim a pretext for invasion.

“Even as we are doing everything we possibly can to make sure that this diplomatic path, that this has to resolved — differences have to be resolved through dialogue, through diplomacy,” Blinken told reporters, “we are deeply concerned that that is not the path that Russia has embarked on and that everything we’re seeing, including what you’ve described in the last 24 to 48 hours, is part of a scenario that is already in play of creating false provocations, of then having to respond to those provocations and then ultimately committing new aggression against Ukraine.”

Still, Blinken said he remains “hopeful” that the threat of sanctions and the supply of military aid to regional allies from the U.S. and others “will have an impact.”

Feb 18, 9:40 am
Russia-backed separatists announce mass evacuations

Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine have declared a mass evacuation of civilians, while accusing Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of preparing to launch a full-scale invasion against the breakaway regions in the coming days.

Ukraine has immediately denied the claim, but the mass evacuation order is worrying as it raises the prospect the separatists may allege a Ukrainian offensive in the coming days that Russia would use as a pretext to attack its ex-Soviet neighbor.

Denis Pushilin, leader of the self-proclaimed People’s Republic of Donetsk in a breakaway region of southeastern Ukraine known as Donbas, delivered a public address to residents on Friday saying mass, centralized evacuations were now being organized, with women, children and the elderly going first.

Pushilin said the evacuation would be “temporary” and that Russia has agreed to provide evacuation centers in the neighboring Rostov region to house evacuees. The separatists’ leader also called on all able-bodied men to take up arms.

“I again appeal to all men able to hold a rifle in their hands, to come to the defense of their land,” Pushilin said in a televised address.

The announcement came amid a sharp escalation along the front line between Russia-backed separatist forces and Ukrainian government troops, with Ukraine accusing the separatists of unleashing a major bombardment in the past two days. Heavy firing has been reported since Thursday coming from the separatist areas, while the separatists have accused Ukrainian troops of firing on them.

-ABC News’ Patrick Reevell

Feb 18, 8:40 am
US envoy: Russia has up to 190,000 forces, including separatists, menacing Ukraine

The United States believes Russia now has “probably” as many as 190,000 troops, including Russian-backed separatists forces, according to a U.S. envoy, in and around Ukraine amid fears that Russian capabilities of a full-fledged invasion continue to grow.

“We assess that Russia probably has massed between 169,000 to 190,000 personnel in and near Ukraine as compared with about 100,000 on January 30,” Michael Carpenter, U.S. ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), said in a statement Friday. “This estimate includes military troops along the border, in Belarus, and in occupied Crimea; Russian National Guard and other internal security units deployed to these areas; and Russian-led forces in eastern Ukraine.”

Unlike this latest assessment, previous estimations by U.S. officials did not include separatist forces in eastern Ukraine.

“While Russia has sought to downplay or deceive the world about their ground and air preparations, the Russian military has publicized its large-scale naval exercises in the Black Sea, Baltic Sea and the Arctic,” Carpenter said. “Russia has publicly said the Black Sea exercise alone involves more than 30 ships, and we assess that amphibious landing ships from the Northern and Baltic Fleets were sent to the Black Sea to augment forces there.”

The OSCE is a Cold War-era European security forum that has deployed a war monitor in eastern Ukraine for years and hosted talks on the current crisis with Russia. Its foundational documents have been used selectively by Moscow to paint Ukraine and NATO as a threat to Russia’s security, even as its envoy in Vienna has largely dismissed dialogue there.

Earlier this week, Ukraine requested an emergency OSCE meeting to demand Russia explain its massive military buildup after Moscow ignored Kyiv’s inquiry. Russia skipped Wednesday’s session just as it did Friday’s, where Carpenter delivered these remarks.

Meanwhile, Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov told his country’s parliament Friday that they assess Russia has about 149,000 troops near their borders.

-ABC News Conor Finnegan and Cindy Smith

Feb 18, 7:45 am
US to sell Poland $6 billion of tanks, more military aid

The United States announced Friday its plans to sell $6 billion of new military aid to Poland, amid the threat of war between neighboring Ukraine and Russia.

The proposed sale includes 250 Abrams main battle tanks, 250 short-range jamming systems that counter improvised explosive devices, 26 combat recovery vehicles, nearly 800 machines guns and much more, according to a press release from the U.S. Department of State.

The announcement came as U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin met with his Polish counterpart in Warsaw to discuss concerns regarding the massive buildup of Russian troops near Ukraine, which U.S. and NATO officials say position Moscow for an imminent invasion. Poland is a key eastern European ally to the U.S. and a fellow member of NATO.

“Some of those forces [are] within 200 miles of the Polish border,” Austin said during a joint press conference in the Polish capital on Friday. “If Russia further invades Ukraine, Poland could see tens of thousands of displaced Ukrainians and others flowing across its border, trying to save themselves and their families from the scourge of war.”

Austin said the U.S. now has an additional 4,700 troops in Poland “who are prepared to respond to a range of contingencies.”

“They will work closely with our State Department and with Polish authorities should there be any need to help American citizens leave Ukraine,” he added.

The planned sale of more military aid to Poland “will support the foreign policy and national security of the United States by helping to improve the security of a NATO Ally that is a force for political stability and economic progress in Europe,” according to the State Department.

“The proposed sale will improve Poland’s capability to meet current and future threats by providing a credible force that is capable of deterring adversaries and participating in NATO operations,” the State Department said in a statement Friday. “Poland will have no difficulty absorbing this equipment into its armed forces.”

-ABC News’ Conor Finnegan

Feb 18, 6:21 am
Kremlin expresses concern about escalation in Donbas

Russia is concerned about the ongoing escalation of tensions in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine and believes the events unfolding there post a major potential threat, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Friday.

“What is happening in Donbas is very disquieting news, which provokes concern,” Peskov told reporters during a daily call. “It is potentially very dangerous.”

When asked how Putin has been sleeping amid the rising tensions, Peskov said: “Equally well.” He then added after a brief pause: “But with one eye open.”

-ABC News’ Anastasia Bagaeva

Feb 18, 5:56 am
Putin to oversee massive nuclear drills on Saturday

Russian President Vladimir Putin will personally oversee massive drills of his country’s strategic nuclear forces on Saturday, including test launches of ballistic and cruise missiles, the Russian Ministry of Defense announced Friday.

The defense ministry said in a statement that the drills were “planned” as part of large-scale military exercises currently taking place across Russia. Saturday’s drills are meant to check “the preparedness of military commands and crews of missile systems, warships and strategic bombers to accomplish their missions and at verifying the reliability of weapons of strategic nuclear and conventional forces,” according to the defense ministry.

“The exercise will involve forces and hardware belonging to the Aerospace Forces, the Southern Military District, the Strategic Missile Forces, the Northern Fleet, and the Black Sea Fleet,” the defense ministry said.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Putin will be at the defense ministry’s Situational Center during the drills Saturday and that Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko might join him.

“Even test launches of this type are impossible without the head of state,” Peskov told reporters during a daily call Friday. “You all know about his famed ‘black briefcase,’ ‘the red button’ and so on.”

Peskov said the drills shouldn’t cause concern among other countries because they were notified of the upcoming exercises in advance.

When asked whether such drills could exacerbate tensions, Peskov replied: “Exercises and training launches of ballistic missiles are quite a regular training process. It is preceded by a whole series of notifications forwarded to different countries via various channels. All this is precisely regulated and no one has any questions or concerns.”

The drills will also coincide with the finale of the major joint military exercises in neighboring Belarus.

U.S. military officials have previously warned that Russia could conduct these drills now, saying the timing might be in order to signal to the West not to interfere in the event of a Russian invasion of Ukraine.

It’s also another opportunity for posturing as Putin has done many times before, placing himself at the end of demonstrations of military might. In recent years he has repeatedly hailed a range of new Russian nuclear super weapons, including a nuclear-powered cruise missile and hypersonic weapons.

-ABC News’ Anastasia Bagaeva and Patrick Reevell

Feb 18, 4:25 am
Lukashenko to meet Putin in Moscow

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko will meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on Friday, as their countries continue to hold massive joint military exercises that Western countries fear could be used to cover up preparations for a possible invasion of neighboring Ukraine.

While Russia and Belarus have said that Russian troops will leave after the drills conclude Sunday, the United States remains concerned they may stay.

Earlier this week, Lukashenko indicated that he and Putin would decide at their meeting Friday how long Russian troops would stay in Belarus. Video released by Belarusian state media showed the authoritarian leader arriving at Moscow’s airport Friday morning.

Russia has moved an unprecedented number of troops into Belarus as part of its wider military build-up near Ukraine. There is an estimated 30,000 Russian troops in Belarus, which is only a few hours drive north of the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv.

Concerns have been heightened because Russia has moved most of the troops from its Eastern Military District in Russia’s Far East, some 6,000 miles away. Among them are many units required for an offensive, including long range artillery, fighter bombers, attack helicopters and airborne troops.

-ABC News’ Patrick Reevell

Feb 17, 9:28 pm
Biden to host meeting of allied leaders Friday: Canada PM’s office

President Joe Biden will host a closed-door meeting on Ukraine Friday with several U.S. allies, according to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s office.

The leaders of France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Romania, the UK, the EU and NATO will participate in the meeting, Trudeau’s office said while sharing the prime minister’s Friday iterinary.

A White House official confirmed to ABC News that Biden will have a phone call Friday afternoon with transatlantic leaders “about Russia’s buildup of military troops on the border of Ukraine and our continued efforts to pursue deterrence and diplomacy.”

Also on Friday, Vice President Kamala Harris is scheduled to meet with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg and hold a meeting with the leaders of the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, as she travels to Germany for the annual Munich Security Conference, the White House said.

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