Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the deployment of troops to two breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine after recognising them as independent on Monday, accelerating a crisis the West fears could unleash a major war.
Tanks and other military hardware were seen moving through the separatist-controlled city of Donetsk after Putin formally recognised the breakaway regions and ordered the deployment of Russian forces to “keep the peace”.
About five tanks were seen in a column on the edge of Donetsk and two more in another part of town, one reporter said. No insignia were visible on the vehicles.
Putin’s announcement drew US and European condemnation and vows of new sanctions although it was unclear whether it was Putin’s first major step toward a full-scale offensive in Ukraine that Western governments have warned about for weeks.
Linda Thomas-Greenfield, US ambassador to the United Nations, told an emergency meeting of the Security Council late on Monday that Moscow’s recognition of the breakaway eastern regions was part of its attempt to create a pretext for a further invasion of Ukraine.
US diplomatic staff, who had been moved from Kyiv to the western city of Lviv, were ordered to spend the night in Poland as the crisis deepened.
A senior US official said the deployment to breakaway enclaves did not yet constitute a “further invasion” that would trigger the harshest sanctions as Russia already had forces there, but that a wider campaign could come at any time.
A last-minute bid for a summit between Putin and US President Joe Biden was now in doubt, he added.
Business Ban with Breakaway Areas
Biden, who also spoke to French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, signed an executive order to halt all US business activity in the breakaway regions and ban import of all goods from those areas.
The measures were separate from sanctions the United States and its allies had prepared if Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, White House spokesperson Jen Psaki said.
The White House said further sanctions would be announced on Tuesday.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the executive order was “designed to prevent Russia from profiting off of this blatant violation of international law.”
Oil at 7-Year High
Oil jumped to a seven-year high, safe-havens currencies like the yen rallied and US stock futures dived as Europe’s eastern flank stood on the brink of war.
Meanwhile, the rouble extended its losses as Putin spoke, at one point sliding beyond 80 per dollar.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who received a solidarity call from Biden, accused Russia of wrecking peace talks and ruled out territorial concessions in an address to the nation early on Tuesday.
Scholz’s spokesman said Germany, France and the United States had agreed to respond with sanctions, while British Foreign Minister Liz Truss said Britain would announce new sanctions on Tuesday.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg accused Russia of “trying to stage a pretext” for a further invasion. Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014.
In a lengthy televised address packed with grievances against the West, a visibly angry Putin said eastern Ukraine was ancient Russian land.
Russian state television showed Putin, joined by Russia-backed separatist leaders, signing a decree recognising the independence of the two Ukrainian breakaway regions – the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic and the Lugansk People’s Republic.
Putin had announced his decision in phone calls to the leaders of Germany and France earlier, the Kremlin said.
In his address, Putin delved into history as far back as the Ottoman Empire and as recent as the tensions over NATO’s eastward expansion. His demands that Ukraine drop its long-term goal of joining the Atlantic military alliance have been repeatedly rebuffed by Kyiv and NATO states.
“I deem it necessary to make a decision that should have been made a long time ago – to immediately recognise the independence and sovereignty of the Donetsk People’s Republic and the Lugansk People’s Republic,” Putin said.
A French presidential official said the speech “mixed various considerations of a rigid and paranoid nature”.
Diplomatic Window Narrows
The United States says Russia has massed a force numbering 169,000-190,000 troops in the region, including the separatists in the breakaway regions, and has warned of invasion at any moment.
Putin has for years worked to restore Russia’s influence over nations that emerged after the collapse of the Soviet Union, with Ukraine holding an important place in his ambitions.
Russia denies any plan to attack its neighbour, but it has threatened unspecified “military-technical” action unless it receives sweeping security guarantees, including a promise that Ukraine will never join NATO.
Recognition of the separatist-held areas will narrow the diplomatic options to avoid war, since it is an explicit rejection of a seven-year-old ceasefire mediated by France and Germany.
• Reuters with additional editing by Jim Pollard