RFE/RL – Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (Autor)
Russian President Vladimir Putin has ordered Russian troops to be sent into a separatist-held region of eastern Ukraine in a military escalation that Western leaders have warned will spark massive consequences for Moscow.
Putin's move came hours after he announced his decision to recognize the Russia-backed separatists' call for recognition of independence in a move that was discouraged by the United Nations and swiftly condemned by Western leaders fearful of major conflict in the region.
Before it was clear that news of the Kremlin decree had reached foreign capitals, the White House said that President Joe Biden had spoken to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity.
Biden's administration also said the U.S. president had reiterated to a phone call with French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz that the United States would respond "swiftly and decisively" and in "lock-step" with its allies and partners to further aggression against Ukraine.
The decree, on a Russian government site and dated February 21, says the order takes effect immediately. But it was unclear when any of the 150,000 or so Russian troops that Western leaders say are near the Ukrainian border might start moving into Ukrainian territory.
The decree says the Russian military will enter the region at the request of the republic to "maintain peace."
The full extent of Putin's decree is unclear, as the separatists claim all of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions but control only around half of the two eastern Ukrainian regions.
The State Duma and the Federation Council are expected on February 22 to ratify Russian treaties with the separatist groups, and under those agreements potentially provide them with military assistance.
Putin listed a litany of alleged grievances against the leadership in Kyiv as well as NATO and the West in a televised speech that concluded with the signing of documents that appeared to give Kremlin backing to the separatists' ambitions.
"I consider it necessary to take a long overdue decision: to immediately recognize the independence and sovereignty of the Donetsk People's Republic and the Luhansk People's Republic," Putin said in a reference to separatist-held parts of Ukraine's Donetsk and Luhansk regions. "I ask the Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation to support this decision and then ratify the treaty of friendship and mutual assistance with both republics."
As Putin spoke, international news agencies quoted Ukrainian government troops in frontline trenches in eastern Ukraine as saying firing from heavy weapons in the hands of the separatists had intensified.
European and U.S. leaders quickly condemned the recognition and vowed more sanctions targeting Russia or the separatist-held areas of eastern Ukraine.
The Russian ruble also plummeted, slipping past 80 against the dollar, while stocks plunged to their lowest in over a year led by a fall in Russian assets.
U.S. Embassy personnel in Lviv will spend the night of February 22 in Poland amid safety concerns. The State Department said in a statement that the security situation in Ukraine “continues to be unpredictable” and “may deteriorate with little notice.”
The United States earlier this month moved its embassy in Ukraine from the capital of Kyiv to Lviv in the west near the border with Poland.
Kyiv responded to Putin's announcement recognizing the independence of the groups by saying "the entire world" is following Russia's actions on the recognition of the self-styled groups and "everyone realizes the consequences."
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said he will meet with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Washington on February 22 after a phone call between the two diplomats on February 21.
Putin made widespread and familiar allegations throughout his speech -- without providing evidence -- including that Kyiv was seeking to obtain nuclear weapons, that "horror and genocide" was being perpetrated against residents of eastern Ukraine, and that the Russian language and Orthodox Church were being targeted there.
He also said NATO had "completely ignored" Moscow's security demands, which have included calls for a legally binding pledge that Ukraine won't be allowed to join the alliance and the removal of NATO weapons and equipment from Central and Eastern European countries.
Putin concluded with an ominous warning for Kyiv, which he described as a "puppet regime" run by foreign powers.
"And from those who have seized and are holding power in Ukraine, we demand an immediate cessation of hostilities," he said, turning Ukrainian reports of aggression by Russia and its proxy forces on their head. "Otherwise, the entire responsibility for the possible continuation of the bloodshed will be entirely on the conscience of the regime ruling on the territory of Ukraine."
Western powers have repeatedly warned of serious consequences if Russia attacks Ukraine.
After Putin's recognition announcement, White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Biden would sign an executive order to "prohibit new investment, trade, and financing by U.S. persons to, from, or in the so-called DNR and LNR regions of Ukraine," in a reference to the separatist areas.
She said the order will "provide authority to impose sanctions on any person determined to operate in those areas of Ukraine."
Psaki stressed that wider sanctions were prepared "should Russia further invade Ukraine."
Biden also had a phone call with French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, the White House said.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg issued a statement "condemning" Russia's decision.
"NATO supports the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine within its internationally recognized borders," the alliance chief said.
Stoltenberg said Putin's move "further undermines Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, erodes efforts towards a resolution of the conflict, and violates the Minsk Agreements [cease-fire], to which Russia is a party."
EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Council President Charles Michel issued a joint statement saying the recognition is "a blatant violation of international law." They said the bloc “will react with sanctions” and “reiterates its unwavering support to Ukraine’s independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity within its internationally recognized borders.”
As Putin was speaking, Johnson repeated that a "robust package of sanctions" could await Russia. He called Putin's move "a flagrant violation of the sovereignty and integrity of the Ukraine."
Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics said the EU must immediately impose sanctions.
Ahead of Putin's speech, the United Nations, which recognizes Crimea and the separatist-controlled areas as part of Ukraine, underscored the need for "maximum restraint" to avoid escalations.
"We would encourage everyone involved to refrain from any unilateral decision or unilateral action that could undermine the territorial integrity of Ukraine," UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said.
Earlier, the U.S. ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Michael Carpenter, said Russian recognition of areas of eastern Ukraine outside of government control would be "deplorable" and should be condemned.
After speaking by phone with Putin in talks to "prevent a catastrophe," German Chancellor Olaf Scholz's office said the German leader had condemned possible recognition and warned Putin that the move would be a "unilateral breach" of the Minsk accords aimed at a peaceful resolution of Ukraine's eight-year war with Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba noted "a lot of emotions" but said in a tweet that "it's exactly now that we all should calmly focus on de-escalation efforts. No other way."
A short time earlier, Kuleba said he had urged UN Security Council members to convene under an article of the so-called Budapest Memorandum "to discuss urgent actions aimed at de-escalation" along with "practical steps to guarantee the security of Ukraine."
Putin appeared at a rare televised meeting of the Russian Security Council on February 21 alongside Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, and the Kremlin's special envoy on Ukraine, Dmitry Kozak, as well as other officials.
Putin added that there was "no prospect" of a peace plan to end the conflict in eastern Ukraine, where Kyiv has been fighting the separatists since 2014, when Russia also occupied and illegally annexed Ukraine's Crimea. At least 13,200 people were killed in the conflict so far.
Moscow has insisted that it has no invasion plans. But U.S. President Joe Biden said last week that he believed Putin might already have decided on an attack, and U.S. media have reported that U.S. intelligence suggests orders have been sent to Russian tactical commanders.
In the Security Council meeting, Putin said the current discussion was not about "adding" the separatist-controlled areas to Russian territory.
Putin and Lavrov also repeated Moscow's demand that NATO and Western leaders pledge not to allow Ukraine to join the transatlantic military alliance. Putin repeated that the "threat" for Russia "increases substantially" if Ukraine joins NATO.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has reiterated Kyiv's hopes of joining the alliance, a goal that was written into the Ukrainian Constitution in 2019, five years into the ongoing conflict with the separatists.
Zelenskiy has pledged that Ukrainian soldiers will avoid responding to provocations from separatists or Russian forces with tensions ratcheted high after U.S. and other Western officials warned of the risk of so-called false-flag operations to spark a pretext for a Russian offensive.
U.S. national-security adviser Jake Sullivan said on February 21 that "we anticipate they very well may [roll Russian tanks across the border into Ukraine] in the coming hours or days."
Lavrov said he planned to meet U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Geneva on February 24.
He also said he plans to travel to Paris the following day to meet with French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian to lay the groundwork for a possible Biden-Putin summit that was suggested by French President Emmanuel Macron.
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