Focus on EU-US talks after Biden warning: Ukraine update

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(Bloomberg) – US and EU senior ministers will meet on Saturday as tensions mount over Russia’s military buildup near Ukraine, with Joe Biden saying US intelligence now leads him to believe Russian President Vladimir Putin has decided to attack Ukraine. The US president said an invasion – including a strike on Kiev – could occur within days.

Countries across Europe, including France and the UK, are also issuing increasingly frantic warnings, while Russia denies planning an invasion and calls such claims propaganda and “hysteria”. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy is due to travel to Germany to address the Munich Security Conference, where he is also expected to meet US officials including Vice President Kamala Harris.

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Moscow and Kyiv continue to trade allegations of violations of a tenuous ceasefire in eastern Ukraine. The move was put in place as part of efforts to end an armed conflict that erupted in 2014 between Russian-backed separatists and the Ukrainian military. The Kiev government refuses to negotiate with the separatists, claiming they are proxies for Moscow.

Key developments

Group of Seven Foreign Ministers Meeting in MunichU.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin meets Baltic ministers in Vilnius

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Blinken and LeDrian meet in busy round of talks in Munich (9:30 a.m.)

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US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and his French counterpart Jean-Yves Le Drian met early Saturday at the Munich Security Conference to discuss the situation in and around Ukraine.

A rapid series of bilateral talks and speeches are expected at the annual conference.

NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg said in a speech that if Russia’s goal is to divide NATO, it will face an even more united alliance.

Ukrainian separatists call for general military mobilization (8:05 a.m.)

The leader of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic in eastern Ukraine has called for a general mobilization of men capable of fighting. “I urge compatriots who are in reserve to come to military stations,” Denis Pushilin, leader of Russia-backed separatists in Donetsk, said in a video posted on Telegram. The head of the Luhansk People’s Republic made a similar call, Russian newspaper Tass reported.

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Ukraine’s Defense Ministry said on Saturday that Russian-backed separatists had violated the region’s ceasefire regime 19 times since midnight, killing a serviceman. Dozens of towns and villages were reportedly shelled on Friday in the Luhansk and Donetsk regions, and damage was reported to apartment buildings and private homes.

Pushilin said on Friday that women, children and the elderly would start leaving for Russia due to an escalation in fighting along the line of contact with Ukrainian forces. The governor of Russia’s Rostov region declared a state of emergency on Saturday in response to what he said was a surge in the number of people arriving from Donbass, Tass reported.

Kiev has repeatedly declared that it has no intention of attacking the separatist areas. Violence in the Donbass region has increased over the past week, according to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which monitors the ceasefire.

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Russian media reports a fire in a gas pipeline (00:20)

Russian state media reported on a gas pipeline fire that followed an explosion in separatist-held areas of eastern Ukraine on Friday night.

Some media outlets and social media commentators said the blast targeted the Druzhba “gas pipeline”, although Druzhba is a major oil pipeline serving Europe and also does not pass near the breakaway Lugansk region. A nearby gas pipeline has already been hit, with no impact on Russian gas exports. The state company that runs gas pipelines in Lugansk said a fire was quickly extinguished.

French tone darkens when there is a risk of attack (11:25 p.m.)

A senior official in President Emmanuel Macron’s government has said that all participants in a call between European, American and Canadian leaders see the risk of an invasion rising. Transatlantic allies agreed they must be ready to act at all times, according to the official, who added that a worst-case scenario could yet be avoided.

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France’s reading reflects a noticeable change in tone. French officials have generally kept their distance from the alarming warnings that have emerged from the Biden administration.

The official urged all parties concerned to remain cautious about misinformation and inaccurate information in the region. The person said Macron would speak with Zelenskiy on Saturday and Putin on Sunday.

Biden says Putin attack likely to happen in days (11:06 p.m.)

Biden said US intelligence led him to believe Putin had decided to attack Ukraine and that an invasion – including a strike on Kiev – could come within days.

“We believe they will target the Ukrainian capital Kiev, a city of 2.8 million innocent people,” Biden told reporters at the White House, without detailing the intelligence behind his comments. “We loudly call out Russia’s plans, repeatedly, not because we want conflict, but because we are doing everything in our power to suppress any reason Russia might give to justify the invasion of Ukraine and prevent it from moving.”

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Speaking after arranging a call with European allies, Biden also said claims by Russia and its separatist allies in eastern Ukraine that the Kyiv government has sparked further violence in the region are not plausible. He repeated his claim that the Kremlin is trying to stage a “false flag” operation to create a false pretext for its invasion.

US claims Russia was behind cyberattacks (9:03 p.m.)

The United States believes Russia was responsible for a cyberattack on Ukrainian banks and government websites earlier this week, Anne Neuberger, US deputy national security adviser for cybersecurity, told reporters at the White House. . Russia has denied having anything to do with the Distributed Denial of Service, or DDoS, attack.

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Without providing details, Neuberger said the United States had technical information showing infrastructure linked to Russian military intelligence services “transmitting high volumes of communication to IP addresses and domains based in Ukraine.”

The United States shared this underlying intelligence with Ukraine and European partners. Although the attack ultimately had little impact on Ukrainian banking operations, the White House fears the attack could lay the groundwork for more disruptive cyber actions.

Draghi says any Russian sanctions should avoid energy (7:24 p.m.)

Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi said on Friday that any European Union sanctions against Russia should be “limited” and not include energy, given the impact on countries that depend on gas imports, including Italy. “Sanctions should be concentrated on as few sectors as possible without including energy,” he told a news conference in Rome, adding that sanctions should be applied in proportion to the “type of ‘attack”.

Draghi plans to travel to Moscow and meet Putin but no date has been announced. He said Putin had reassured him in recent phone calls that Russia was ready to increase gas supplies to the country if needed, and that Italy was also considering other potential energy sources.

The EU and the United States are discussing a set of sanctions to be imposed on Russia in the event of an invasion of Ukraine, although European countries have been cautious about the potential fallout on their own economies, including the energy and financial sectors.

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