German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said Tuesday that he was suspending the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project with Russia, as fears increased of a full-scale invasion amid reports and statements from officials that Russian troops were already on Ukrainian soil.
Scholz said he had asked to halt the German regulator’s review process for the pipeline.
“That sounds technical, but it is the necessary administrative step so there can be no certification of the pipeline and without this certification, Nord Stream 2 cannot begin operating,” he said.
A day after Russian President Vladimir Putin recognized the independence of the regions in eastern Ukraine, Scholz warned Russia that a decision to halt the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project was only one “concrete” step by Germany and that further sanctions could follow.
“There are also other sanctions that we can introduce if further measures are taken, but for now, it’s a matter of doing something very concrete,” he told journalists.
The Nord Stream 2 project has long been a source of tension with Berlin’s allies, who have argued that it would give Moscow too much leverage by increasing Germany’s energy dependence.
Meanwhile, Britain said Tuesday it will impose sanctions on five Russian banks and three “very high-net worth individuals.”
“The UK and our allies will begin to impose the sanctions on Russia that we have already prepared using the new and unprecedented powers granted by this House to sanction Russian individuals and entities of strategic importance to the Kremlin,” Prime Minister Boris Johnson told parliament on Tuesday.
“Today, the UK is sanctioning the following five Russian banks: Rossiya, IS Bank, General Bank, Promsvyazbank and the Black Sea Bank. And we are sanctioning three very high net worth individuals: Gennady Timchenko, Boris Rotenberg, and Igor Rotenberg,” Johnson said.
London is a key financial market for Moscow and plays a crucial role in the Russian economy.
The European Union and United States are also readying to announce sanctions against Moscow on Tuesday.
The announcements came as Russia set the stage for a quick move to secure its hold on Ukraine’s rebel regions on Tuesday with new legislation that would allow the deployment of troops there.
The agreements, published by Russia’s lower house of parliament, create a “legal basis” for the presence of the Russian army in the republics.
The lower house of the Russian parliament, the Duma, voted to approve Putin’s “friendship deals” with the Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) and Lugansk People’s Republic (LNR).
As part of the deals, both sides agreed to share military bases and jointly protect their borders.
The voting ended in standing applause from MPs. Russia’s upper house of parliament, the Federation Council, is due to vote on the deals later on Tuesday.
The legislation could be a pretext for a deeper move into Ukrainian territory as the US and its allies have feared.
Quickly after Putin signed the initial decree late Monday, convoys of armored vehicles were seen rolling across the separatist-controlled territories. It wasn’t immediately clear if they were Russian.
However, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said Tuesday that “Russian troops have entered Donbas,” adding that “I wouldn’t say that (it is) a fully-fledged invasion, but Russian troops are on Ukrainian soil.”
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Polish Defense Minister Mariusz Błaszczak also said in a radio interview Tuesday he could confirm that Russian forces entered the territories, describing it as a violation of Ukraine’s borders and international law.
Russian officials haven’t yet acknowledged any troop deployments to the rebel east, but Vladislav Brig, a member of the separatist local council in Donetsk, told reporters that the Russian troops already had moved in, taking up positions in the region’s north and west.
Putin’s decision to recognize the rebel regions as independent states follows a nearly eight-year-old separatist conflict that has killed more than 14,000 people and devastated Ukraine’s eastern industrial heartland of Donbas.
The latest developments and move by Putin were met with reprehension by many countries around the world and were set to lead to sanctions.
Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky sought to project calm, telling the country in an address overnight: “We are not afraid of anyone or anything. We don’t owe anyone anything. And we won’t give anything to anyone.”
Zelensky said Tuesday he haג “received a request from the Foreign Ministry to examine the question of breaking off relations between Ukraine and the Russian Federation.”
“I will now, immediately after this press conference, examine and work on this issue,” he said.
The Kremlin responded to Zelensky’s comments, saying that it remained open to all diplomatic contact over Ukraine and that Kyiv cutting ties with Moscow would worsen an already tense situation.
“The Russian side remains open at all levels for diplomatic contacts… Everything depends on our opponents,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters, adding that a move by Kyiv to cut its official ties with Moscow would be “an extremely undesirable scenario that would make everything even more difficult.”
Tensions have continued to fly high in eastern Ukraine, with more shelling reported along the tense line of contact between the rebels and Ukrainian forces.
Ukraine’s military said two Ukrainian soldiers were killed and another 12 were wounded by shelling over the last 24 hours. It has rejected the rebel claims of shelling residential areas and insisted that Ukrainian forces weren’t returning fire.