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Russia pulls diplomatic staff from Ukraine amid escalating tensions

Russia says Ukraine has ‘plunged deeper into chaos’; Western countries continue to relocate embassies as Russian lawmakers approve use of force abroad

Ukrainians attend a rally in central Kyiv, Ukraine, on February 12, 2022, during a protest against the potential escalation of the tension between Russia and Ukraine. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)
Ukrainians attend a rally in central Kyiv, Ukraine, on February 12, 2022, during a protest against the potential escalation of the tension between Russia and Ukraine. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)

MOSCOW, Russia — Russia on Tuesday said it would soon evacuate its diplomatic staff from Ukraine to “protect their lives,” after lawmakers allowed Russian President Vladimir Putin to use force abroad.

“To protect the lives and safety (of diplomats), the Russian leadership decided to evacuate the personnel of Russian foreign missions in Ukraine, which will be implemented in the near future,” Moscow’s foreign ministry said in a statement.

The ministry said that its diplomats have received threats and that its embassy and consulate have been under “repeated attacks.”

“Ukraine has plunged deeper into chaos,” the statement said.

Several Western countries, including Israel, have relocated their embassies from Kyiv to the city of Lviv near the Polish border, as the US and its allies have for months accused Russia of planning an attack on Ukraine.

The Russian announcement of evacuations came shortly after the Russian parliament’s upper house gave Putin permission to use the Russian army abroad.

A protester throws down a tire to set a fire in front of the Russian Embassy in Kiev, late on November 25, 2018, during a protest following an incident in the Black Sea off Moscow-annexed Crimea. (Sergei Supinsky/AFP)

Members of the upper house, the Federation Council, voted unanimously to allow Putin to use military force outside Russia — effectively formalizing a Russian military deployment to the rebel regions, where an eight-year conflict has killed nearly 14,000 people.

Shocked by Putin’s order to deploy troops to separatist regions of eastern Ukraine, world leaders moved quickly Tuesday to impose as forceful a response as possible in hopes of averting a full-blown war in Europe.

Germany made the first big move, taking steps to halt the process of certifying the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia — a lucrative deal long sought by Moscow, but criticized by the US for increasing Europe’s reliance on Russian energy supplies.

The rest of the European Union soon followed, with a first set of sanctions taking aim at Duma legislators who voted in favor of recognizing separatist regions in Ukraine, as well as several Russian officials. They also sought to limit Moscow’s access to EU capital and financial markets.

Russian marines take their position during the Union Courage-2022 Russia-Belarus military drills at the Obuz-Lesnovsky training ground in Belarus, on February 19, 2022. (Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP)

“This package of sanctions… will hurt Russia and it will hurt a lot,” EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said after chairing a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Paris.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson went as far as naming five Russian banks and three wealthy individuals who the UK hit with sanctions on Tuesday.

With tensions rising and a broader conflict looking ever more likely, the White House began referring to the Russian deployments as an “invasion” after initially hesitating to use the term — a red line that US President Joe Biden has said would result in the US levying severe sanctions against Moscow.

The White House decided to begin referring to Russia’s actions as an “invasion” because of the situation on the ground, according to a US official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.

And if Putin pushes further into Ukraine, NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg insisted the West would move in lockstep. “If Russia decides once again to use force against Ukraine, there will be even stronger sanctions, even a higher price to pay,” he said.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg speaks during a media conference after a meeting of the NATO-Ukraine Commission at NATO headquarters in Brussels, on February 22, 2022. (AP Photo/Olivier Matthys)

For weeks, Western powers have been bracing for an invasion as Russia massed an estimated 150,000 troops on three sides of neighboring Ukraine. They warned an attack would cause massive casualties, energy shortages in Europe and economic chaos around the globe — and promised swift and severe sanctions if it materialized. The EU and Britain announced Tuesday that some of those measures were coming.

Western leaders have long warned that Moscow would look for cover to invade — and just such a pretext appeared to come Monday, when Putin recognized as independent two separatist regions in eastern Ukraine, where government troops have fought Russia-backed rebels in a conflict that has killed over 14,000 people. The Kremlin then raised the stakes further Tuesday, by saying that recognition extends even to the large parts now held by Ukrainian forces.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that Russia has recognized the rebel regions’ independence “in borders that existed when they proclaimed” their independence in 2014 — broad territories that extend far beyond the areas now under the rebel control and that include the major Black Sea port of Mariupol.

Putin’s move to recognize the territories’ independence opened the door for him to formalize his hold on them and send forces in, though Ukraine and its Western allies have charged Russian troops have been fighting there for years. Moscow denies those allegations.

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

Condemnation from around the world was quick. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said he would consider breaking diplomatic ties with Russia and Kyiv recalled its ambassador in Moscow.

But confusion over what exactly was happening in eastern Ukraine threatened to hobble a Western response.

“Russian troops have entered in Donbas,” the name for the area where the two separatist regions are located, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said in Paris. “We consider Donbas part of Ukraine.”

But in a distinction that could complicate a European and Western response, he added: “I wouldn’t say that [it is] a fully fledged invasion, but Russian troops are on Ukrainian soil.”

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report. 

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