Defiant Putin orders Russian troops to eastern Ukraine as West vows response

Unclear when soldiers will push into Donetsk and Lugansk breakaway regions recognized by Putin; leaders warn ‘step will not go unanswered,’ as UN meeting called, sanctions drawn up

People wave Russian national flags to celebrate, in the center of Donetsk, the territory controlled by pro-Russian militants, eastern Ukraine, late Monday, Feb. 21, 2022. (AP/Alexei Alexandrov)
People wave Russian national flags to celebrate, in the center of Donetsk, the territory controlled by pro-Russian militants, eastern Ukraine, late Monday, Feb. 21, 2022. (AP/Alexei Alexandrov)

MOSCOW, Russia — Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered Russian troops into two Moscow-backed rebel regions of Ukraine on Monday, defying Western threats of sanctions in a move that could set off a potentially catastrophic war with Kyiv.

The move came hours after the Kremlin recognized the independence of two rebel-held areas of the Donetsk and Lugansk regions of Ukraine, paving the way for an operation to deploy part of the potential invasion force he has massed around the country.

The recognition of the breakaway republics, which form an enclave held by Russia-backed rebels since 2014, triggered international condemnation and a promise of targeted sanctions from the United States and the European Union — with a broader package of economic punishment to come in the event of invasion.

In two official decrees, Putin instructed the defense ministry to assume “the function of peacekeeping” in the Donetsk and Lugansk regions and to establish diplomatic ties with them.

The announcement raised fears that an invasion was imminent, if not already underway. However, the decree, spelled out in an order signed by Putin, left unclear when, or even whether, troops would enter Ukraine. The order says only that it “comes into force from the day it was signed.”

Draft treaties with the breakaway republics, published by Russian state media, would allow for Russian troops to jointly guard borders and build bases with separatist authorities in the territories.

Putin’s recognition of the separatist republics as independent effectively buries a fragile peace agreement regulating the conflict in eastern Ukraine and opens the door for Russian military activities in the country.

Underscoring the urgency, the UN Security Council held a rare nighttime emergency meeting on Monday at the request of Ukraine, the US and other countries. Undersecretary-General Rosemary DiCarlo opened the session with a warning that “the risk of major conflict is real and needs to be prevented at all costs.”

It is virtually certain the Security Council will not take any action or issue any statement because Russia has veto power.

The developments came amid a spike in skirmishes in the eastern regions that Western powers believe Russia could use as a pretext for an attack on the western-looking democracy that has defied Moscow’s attempts to pull it back into its orbit.

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during a Security Council meeting in the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, Feb. 21, 2022. (Alexei Nikolsky, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, sought to project calm, telling the country: “We are not afraid of anyone or anything. We don’t owe anyone anything. And we won’t give anything to anyone.”

The White House issued an executive order to prohibit US investment and trade in the separatist regions, and additional measures — likely sanctions — were to be announced Tuesday. Those sanctions are independent of what Washington has prepared in the event of a Russian invasion, according to a senior administration official who briefed reporters on the condition of anonymity.

The State Department, meanwhile, said US personnel in Lviv — in Ukraine’s far west — would spend the night in Poland but return to Ukraine to continue their diplomatic work and emergency consular services. It again urged any American citizens in Ukraine to leave immediately.

After a flurry of calls, US President Joe Biden, France’s Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz warned that Moscow’s gambit “would not go unanswered.”

A French presidential official said the European Union was preparing a list of Russian entities and individuals to sanction in a “proportionate” response to the recognition.

The three Western allies also vowed not to let up in their commitment to the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine.

Praising the restraint shown by Zelensky over the latest developments, they added that they will “do everything in their powers to prevent a further escalation of the situation.”

In Kyiv, Zelensky convened a meeting of his national security council and was due to make a speech later in the night.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson called Putin’s move “a flagrant violation of the sovereignty and integrity of the Ukraine,” with the UK cabinet’s emergency COBR committee due to meet Tuesday and foreign minister Liz Truss promising “new sanctions on Russia.”

EU chiefs Ursula von der Leyen and Charles Michel promised the bloc “will react with sanctions against those involved in this illegal act”.

Biden told Zelensky on Monday that the United States stands by Ukraine’s territorial integrity.

In a phone call, Biden spoke “to reaffirm the commitment of the United States to Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity,” the White House said.

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)

Biden also “updated President Zelensky on the United States’ response, including our plan to issue sanctions. President Biden reiterated that the United States would respond swiftly and decisively, in lock-step with its Allies and partners, to further Russian aggression against Ukraine.”

Earlier on Monday, Putin demanded that Kyiv halt all its military operations against pro-Moscow rebels in eastern Ukraine, or face more bloodshed. He justified his decision to recognize the Donetsk and Lugansk separatist republics in a far-reaching, pre-recorded speech blaming NATO for the current crisis and calling the US-led alliance an existential threat to Russia.

Sweeping through more than a century of history, he painted today’s Ukraine as a modern construct that is inextricably linked to Russia. He charged that Ukraine had inherited Russia’s historic lands and after the Soviet collapse was used by the West to contain Russia.

He accused the authorities in Kyiv of persecuting Russian speakers and of preparing a “blitzkrieg” against Donetsk and Lugansk.

“As for those who seized and hold power in Kyiv, we demand an immediate end to their military operations,” Putin said. “Otherwise, all responsibility for the possible continuation of bloodshed will be fully on the conscience of the regime in power in Ukraine.”

“I consider it necessary to take a long-overdue decision: To immediately recognize the independence and sovereignty of Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic,” Putin said.

Afterward, he signed decrees recognizing the Donetsk and Luhansk regions’ independence, eight years after fighting erupted between Russia-backed separatists and Ukrainian forces, and called on lawmakers to approve measures paving the way for military support.

Until now, Ukraine and the West have accused Russia of supporting the separatists, but Moscow has denied that, saying that Russians who fought there were volunteers.

A pro-Russian rebel mans a weapon mounted on a pickup truck in the town of Vuhlehirsk, eastern Ukraine, February 10, 2015 (AP/Vadim Braydov)

At an earlier meeting of Putin’s Security Council, a stream of top officials argued for recognizing the regions’ independence. At one point, one slipped up and said he favored including them as part of Russian territory — but Putin quickly corrected him.

Recognizing the separatist regions’ independence is likely to be popular in Russia, where many share Putin’s worldview. Russian state media released images of people in Donetsk launching fireworks, waving large Russian flags and playing Russia’s national anthem.

People wave Russian national flags to celebrate, in the center of Donetsk, the territory controlled by pro-Russian militants, eastern Ukraine, late Monday, Feb. 21, 2022. (AP Photo/Alexei Alexandrov)

As news of the late-night recognition hit the streets of Kyiv, many were in disbelief, but ready to defend their country if called on.

“I am very shocked,” said Artem Ivaschenko, a 22-year-old cook originally from Donetsk, calling the recognition the “scariest news” since he had fled the region eight years ago.

“I live here, I already lost a part of my homeland, it was taken away, so I will protect it,” he said.

Putin’s announcement shattered a 2015 peace deal signed in Minsk requiring Ukrainian authorities to offer broad self-rule to the rebel regions, a major diplomatic coup for Moscow.

That deal was resented by many in Ukraine who saw it as a capitulation, a blow to the country’s integrity and a betrayal of national interests. Putin and other officials argued Monday that Ukrainian authorities have shown no appetite for implementing it.

Over 14,000 people have been killed since conflict erupted in the eastern industrial heartland of in 2014, shortly after Moscow annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula.

“Why should Russia recognize (the rebel-held regions)? If neighbors come to you and say, ‘This room will be ours,’ would you care about their opinion or not? It’s your flat, and it will be always your flat,” said Maria Levchyshchyna, a 48-year-old painter in Kyiv. “Let them recognize whatever they want. But in my view, it can also provoke a war, because normal people will fight for their country.”

With an estimated 150,000 Russian troops massed on three sides of Ukraine, the US has warned that Moscow has already decided to invade. Still, Biden and Putin tentatively agreed to a meeting brokered by French President Emmanuel Macron in a last-ditch effort to avoid war.

If Russia moves in, the meeting will be off, but the prospect of a face-to-face summit resuscitated hopes in diplomacy to prevent a conflict that could cause massive casualties and huge economic damage across Europe, which is heavily dependent on Russian energy.

A volunteer collects money in the center of the second largest Ukrainian city of Kharkiv, located some 40 km from the Ukrainian-Russian border on February 20, 2022, to help for wounded in conflict with Russi-backed separatists. (Sergey BOBOK / AFP)

Russia says it wants Western guarantees that NATO won’t allow Ukraine and other former Soviet countries to join as members — and Putin said Monday that a simple moratorium on Ukraine’s accession wouldn’t be enough. Moscow has also demanded the alliance halt weapons deployments to Ukraine and roll back its forces from Eastern Europe — demands flatly rejected by the West.

Macron’s office said both leaders had “accepted the principle of such a summit,” to be followed by a broader meeting that would include other “relevant stakeholders to discuss security and strategic stability in Europe.”

US national security adviser Jake Sullivan, meanwhile, said the administration has always been ready to talk to avert a war — but was also prepared to respond to any attack.

“So when President Macron asked President Biden yesterday if he was prepared in principle to meet with President Putin, if Russia did not invade, of course President Biden said yes,” he told NBC’s “Today” show on Monday. “But every indication we see on the ground right now in terms of the disposition of Russian forces is that they are, in fact, getting prepared for a major attack on Ukraine.”

Ukraine’s Military Forces servicemen sit in the back of military truck in the Donetsk region town of Avdiivka, on the eastern Ukraine front-line with Russia-backed separatists on February 21, 2022. (Aleksey Filippov / AFP)

Tensions have spiked in recent days after an outbreak of heavy shellfire on Ukraine’s eastern frontline with the separatists and a series of reported incidents on the border with Russia.

Sustained shelling continued Monday along the tense line of contact separating the opposing forces. Unusually, Russia said it had fended off an “incursion” from Ukraine — which Ukrainian officials denied. And Russia decided to prolong military drills in Belarus, which could offer a staging ground for an attack on the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv.

Monitors from the OSCE European security body on Monday reported more than 3,000 new ceasefire violations in east Ukraine the day before, a high for the year.

Tanks move during the Union Courage-2022 Russia-Belarus military drills at the Obuz-Lesnovsky training ground in Belarus, Saturday, Feb. 19, 2022. Russia has deployed troops to its ally Belarus for sweeping joint military drills that run through Sunday, fueling Western concerns that Moscow could use the exercise to attack Ukraine from the north. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko Jr)

While separatists have charged that Ukrainian forces were firing on residential areas, Associated Press journalists reporting from several towns and villages in Ukrainian-held territory along the line of contact have not witnessed any notable escalation from the Ukrainian side and have documented signs of intensified shelling by the separatists that destroyed homes and ripped up roads.

Some residents of the main rebel-held city of Donetsk described sporadic shelling by Ukrainian forces, but they added that it wasn’t on the same scale as earlier in the conflict.

A Ukrainian serviceman walks by a building which was hit by a large caliber mortar shell in the frontline village of Krymske, Luhansk region, in eastern Ukraine, Saturday, Feb. 19, 2022. (AP/Vadim Ghirda)

The separatist authorities said Monday that at least four civilians were killed by Ukrainian shelling over the past 24 hours, and several others were wounded. Ukraine’s military said two Ukrainian soldiers were killed over the weekend, and another serviceman was wounded Monday.

Ukrainian officials said two soldiers and a civilian died in more shelling of frontline villages Monday.

Ukrainian military spokesman Pavlo Kovalchyuk insisted that Ukrainian forces weren’t returning fire.

In the village of Novognativka on the Ukraine government-controlled side, 60-year-old Ekaterina Evseeva, said the shelling was worse than at the height of fighting early in the conflict.

“We are on the edge of nervous breakdowns,” she said, her voice trembling. “And there is nowhere to run.”

Ukrainian servicemen stand by a destroyed house near the frontline village of Krymske, Luhansk region, in eastern Ukraine, Saturday, Feb. 19, 2022. (AP/Vadim Ghirda)

In another worrying sign, the Russian military said it killed five suspected “saboteurs” who crossed from Ukraine into Russia’s Rostov region and also destroyed two armored vehicles and took a Ukrainian serviceman prisoner. Ukrainian Border Guard spokesman Andriy Demchenko dismissed the claim as “disinformation.”

Amid the heightened invasion fears, the US administration sent a letter to the United Nations human rights chief claiming that Moscow has compiled a list of Ukrainians to be killed or sent to detention camps after the invasion. The letter, first reported by the New York Times, was obtained by the AP.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the claim was a lie and no such list exists.

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