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'We'll continue to pursue diplomacy until the tanks roll'

Holding out for talks, US reluctant to call Russian move into Ukraine an invasion

US officials say Putin sending troops into breakaway regions won’t trigger broader sanctions as Russians have been on ground there for 8 years

A municipal worker prepares to put up a Donetsk People Republic flag on a building in Donetsk, the territory controlled by pro-Russian militants, eastern Ukraine, Monday, Feb. 21, 2022.  (AP/Alexei Alexandrov)
A municipal worker prepares to put up a Donetsk People Republic flag on a building in Donetsk, the territory controlled by pro-Russian militants, eastern Ukraine, Monday, Feb. 21, 2022. (AP/Alexei Alexandrov)

The United States took a wait-and-see attitude Monday to President Vladimir Putin’s order for Russian troops to deploy in separatist areas of Ukraine, saying that talks remain possible “until the tanks roll,” though some called for Washington to take a tougher approach immediately.

In a speech accusing the West of turning Ukraine into an anti-Russian bastion, Putin said he was granting recognition of independence to the self-declared Donetsk and Lugansk enclaves.

He then tasked Russia with “peacekeeping” in the region, although no detail was given as to what this meant in terms of troop movements.

President Joe Biden imposed sanctions on the two Russian-backed areas in eastern Ukraine’s Donbass region, but stopped short of imposing broader sanctions on Russia, with a US official saying the move had not put diplomacy out of reach.

But a senior US official declined to characterize whether Putin’s order for Russian armed forces to conduct “peacekeeping” there counts as an invasion, thereby triggering much wider and more severe Western sanctions against Moscow.

“We are going to assess what Russia’s done,” the official told reporters, stressing that Russian forces have already been deployed covertly in the separatist areas for eight years. “We’re going to be looking very closely at what they do over the coming hours and days, and our response will be measured according … to their actions.”

A serviceman of Ukrainian Military Forces walks on position on the front line with Russia backed separatists not far Novognativka village, Donetsk region, on February 19, 2022. ( Anatolii STEPANOV / AFP)

The official said the US could not confirm reports in Russian state media that armored columns were moving into Donbass, but said it would not necessarily change the arithmetic.

“Russian troops moving into Donbass would not be a new step,” he said. “We’ll continue to pursue diplomacy until the tanks roll.”

Videos also showed purported Russian troop movements.

Another US official told Reuters that the US had refrained from imposing sanctions on Russia as well because the move was not new.

“This isn’t a further invasion since it’s territory that they’ve already occupied,” the official said.

Instead, Biden signed an executive order to “prohibit new investment, trade, and financing by US persons to, from, or in the so-called DNR and LNR regions of Ukraine,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said Monday.

The order will “provide authority to impose sanctions on any person determined to operate in those areas of Ukraine,” Psaki said, adding that the measures are separate from wider Western sanctions ready to go “should Russia further invade Ukraine.”

But Donetsk and Lugansk already have extremely limited dealings with US citizens, and others called for tougher action immediately, with officials from the US and elsewhere saying Putin’s move could be the first steps of a wider invasion.

Republican Senator Lindsey Graham tweeted that Putin’s move “should immediately be met with forceful sanctions to destroy the ruble and crush the Russian oil and gas sector.”

“This is an invasion. Let’s be clear,” former US ambassador to Ukraine William Taylor told CNN. “We have said exactly what we are going to do. … I think the United States has to take that step.”

He suggested that the US was holding back in consultation with European allies.

Thomas Graham, a former White House official an expert on Russia told ABC that the sanctions would have a limited affect. “These aren’t going to have much of an impact, if at all,” he said.

The United States and its multiple Western allies warn that a full Russian invasion of Ukraine would prompt crippling economic sanctions.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, chairs a Security Council meeting in the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, Monday, Feb. 21, 2022. (Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

The Kremlin has for weeks denied plans to attack Ukraine, while at the same time building up an enormous force of troops and heavy weaponry on three sides of the country.

US officials continue to warn that heavy sanctions on Russia could be imposed at any time.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken slammed Russia’s recognition of the separatist areas as a sign Putin had no interest in diplomacy.

Blinken said in a statement that recognizing the territories’ independence “directly contradicts Russia’s claimed commitment to diplomacy, and is a clear attack on Ukraine’s sovereignty.”

A Ukrainian border guard officer checks a car at the Ukrainian Belarusian state border checkpoint Novi Yarylovychi, Ukraine, Monday, Feb.21, 2022. (AP/Oleksandr Ratushniak)

“Russia’s decision is yet another example of President Putin’s flagrant disrespect for international law and norms,” he said, adding in a separate tweet that the United States “will take appropriate steps in coordination with partners.”

Deputy National Security Adviser Jon Finer indicated that planned high level meetings could still take place if Russia refrained from additional steps.

“There can be no diplomatic meeting either with the foreign ministers, the secretary of state and Foreign Minister Lavrov, or with the President, if Russia takes further military action in Ukraine,” he told CNN.

In this photo made from video provided by Feb. 19, 2022, Russian marines take their position during the Union Courage-2022 Russia-Belarus military drills at the Obuz-Lesnovsky training ground in Belarus. (Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP)

On Friday, the deputy US national security advisor for international economics, Daleep Singh, warned that the full set of sanctions under preparation would turn Russia into an international “pariah.”

Following Putin’s speech, the White House said that Biden talked by phone with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky for 35 minutes to “reaffirm” the US commitment to Ukrainian sovereignty. He also detailed the plan for sanctions.

Biden also spoke for half an hour with two key European allies — French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, an official said. The three leaders “strongly condemned” Putin’s decision and discussed how to coordinate their response.

The White House did not respond immediately to questions about whether there was still any consideration being given to a suggested summit between Biden and Putin.

Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov were scheduled to meet this Thursday to discuss the possible summit.

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