Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy defiantly vowed to protect his country from a potential Russian invasion and chastised Europe for not doing more to safeguard its military and economic security.
Addressing in his native tongue the Munich Security Conference in Germany Saturday as tensions escalated in his home country, Zelensky said Ukraine was prepared “to protect our beautiful land on our borders whether we have 150,000 or 1 million soldiers of any army.”
Zellenskyy’s delivered his remarks as Russians continued moving forces into attack positions surrounding Ukraine, according to a senior U.S. Defense official who was not authorized to speak publicly.
In Washington, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said in a statement Saturday that President Joe Biden will discuss Ukraine during a meeting with his National Security Council on Sunday.
Zelenskyy said he was appreciative of the military supplies the West has provided as it stares down a large Russian force massing on its borders – particularly along the eastern front – but he also said Europe must do more to recognize and reward Ukraine’s role in European stability.
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Speaking to a group that included key Western leaders, Zelensky said bullets and helmets are no substitute for larger acceptance into the European community.
“Everyone needs to understand that this is not some kind of donation that Ukraine should be begging for,” he said about the arms deliveries. “This is not a gesture that Ukraine should be bowing down for. This is your contribution into the European and international security for what Ukraine has been serving as a shield for eight years now.”
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy delivers his speech during the Munich Security Conference in Munich, Germany, Saturday, Feb. 19, 2022.
He said that ongoing fighting has left two Ukrainian soldiers dead and three wounded.
Zelenskyy said his country still is looking for peace: “We are prepared to look for the keys to end the war in all possible formats, in all possible platforms,” he told the conference. “The world needs peace.”
Russian-backed separatist leaders in eastern Ukraine ordered a general military mobilization Saturday of all men “able to hold weapons in their hands” as the Biden administration continued to warn that it believes Russia will attack Ukraine in the coming days and use a fabricated pretext to justify an invasion.
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Harris to Zelenskyy: ‘swift and severe’ sanctions if Russia invades Ukraine
Vice President Kamala Harris assured Zelenskyy on Saturday that the United States “will impose swift and severe economic sanctions” if Russia decides to invade.
“As I have said earlier today to our allies around the world, the United States takes seriously the importance of the integrity and the territorial integrity of Ukraine and your sovereignty. And the United States stands with Ukraine in this regard,” she told him in remarks outside of their meeting together at the Munich Security Conference.
“We are also clear that we would prefer that this would be resolved in a diplomatic way, and we have remained open to a diplomatic path to resolution,” she said.
Zelenskyy said he was “grateful” for the West’s continued support in rhetoric and military equipment, emphasizing that he wants a peaceful resolution.
“We do clearly understand what is going on,” he told the vice president through an interpreter. “This is our land, and the only thing we want is to have peace, bring the peace back to our country.”
– Ledyard King
A call by Russian separatists to take up arms
The leaders of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic issued decrees, published on Russian state media, to take up arms after baselessly claiming that Ukraine was on the verge of launching an assault on the breakaway territories. There is no evidence to that claim as monitoring groups, U.S. intelligence and independent journalists and activists in the area all say it is false.
Late Friday, Donetsk leader Denis Pushilin and Luhansk’s chief Leonid Pasechnik declared a general state of emergency and said they were evacuating civilians across the border to Russia amid escalating threats from Ukraine’s military, another claim for which there does not appear to be any credible evidence.
A woman looks at her mobile phone near a queue of cars as they cross the Russian border check point near the town of Uspenka, on Feb. 19, 2022.
Online investigations specialist website Bellingcat reported that timestamps on the rebel videos calling for the evacuations to Russia show the videos were recorded two days before the alleged – unverified – Ukraine threats, which separatists said included shelling, attacks on gas pipelines and preparations for chemical weapons attacks.
Is Russia going to invade Ukraine? Satellite images show the latest Russian troop movements
Ukrainian officials have issued multiple statements in the last 48 hours urging its citizens and the world not to believe disinformation they say is being circulated at the behest of Russian President Vladimir Putin as part of an attempt to build a case for escalating Moscow’s eight-year-old conflict with Kyiv that began when Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimea region and fighting also broke out in eastern Ukraine. Putin has been angered over an eastward expansion of the NATO military alliance and Ukraine’s ambitions to join the bloc as well as integrate more closely with Europe’s western democracies.
“I appeal to all the men of the republic, who are able to hold weapons in their hands, to stand up for their families, children, wives, mothers,” said Pushili in his decree.
Meanwhile, Russia conducted massive nuclear drills on Saturday. The Kremlin said Putin, who pledged to protect Russia’s national interests against what it sees as encroaching Western threats, was watching the drills together with Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko from the situation room in the Kremlin.
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Notably, the planned exercise involves the Crimea-based Black Sea Fleet. Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula after seizing it from Ukraine in 2014.
Underscoring the West’s concerns of an imminent invasion, a U.S. defense official said an estimated 40% to 50% of the ground forces deployed in the vicinity of the Ukrainian border have moved into attack positions closer to the border.
The shift has been underway for about a week, other officials have said, and does not necessarily mean Putin has decided to begin an invasion. The defense official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal U.S. military assessments.
Pelosi on sanctions: ‘There’s a price to pay for what Putin has put us through’
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi indicated Saturday she might be willing to support sanctions on Russia and President Vladimir Putin now rather than wait for an invasion to take place.
The issue has divided Congress, with most Democrats deferring to Biden, who has opted not to impose sanctions since it might hurt countries who do business with Russia, and Republicans, who want action immediately as a deterrence to an invasion – a position pushed by Zelenskyy.
Pelosi, who is at the Munich Security Council with some 40 other lawmakers, said it might be time to move quickly given the regional instability the crisis has caused and the resources the West has allocated to confront Russia’s buildup on the border.
More:Congress has tough words on Putin and Russia’s aggression in Ukraine but can’t agree on sanctions
“Generally, the consensus was that since many European countries will feel some of the pain of the sanctions, not to do it until – and if – he goes in,” Pelosi said during a news conference Saturday. “But let me say this personally. … There’s a price to pay for what Putin has put us through now. This isn’t bully the world and then take a walk and you’re off the hook.”
Pelosi said it’s ultimately Biden’s call since he has wide latitude to impose sanctions. But “we may want to make a statement in that regard,” she said.
– Ledyard King
Harris: Russia would face ‘unprecedented’ costs if it attacks
Earlier in the conference, Harris warned Russia that it would face “unprecedented” financial costs if it attacked Ukraine and underscored an invasion would draw European allies closer to the United States.
President Joe Biden told reporters Friday that Zelenskyy’s trip might not be “the wise choice” but that it was “a judgment for him to make” and “his decision.”
Biden also said in an address Friday that he’s “convinced” Putin has already made the decision to invade Ukraine, though he said diplomacy has not been ruled out.
Ukraine:Biden ‘convinced’ Putin has decided to invade Ukraine as Russia troop buildup approaches 190K
Russia is holding ballistic missile and nuclear-related drills that will be personally overseen by Putin on Saturday, the nation’s defense ministry announced Friday.
On the diplomatic track, Putin is expected to speak by phone with French President Emmanuel Macron on Sunday and Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, may meet in Europe next week.
“In #Donbass, Moscow’s objective appears to be coercing #Ukraine into talking directly w/Donetsk & Luhansk & ultimately implementing Minsk agreement,” noted Moscow-based foreign affairs expert Dmitri Trenin tweeted Saturday, referring to an all-but moribund peace process between Ukraine and Russia over the breakaway territories.
“RUS nuclear forces exercises are sending message to US so that it leans harder on Kiev. Doctrine of strategic tension at work,” he wrote.