- The Washington Times
Monday, February 21, 2022

Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday recognized two breakaway enclaves in neighboring Ukraine as independent states and authorized Russian troops to cross into Ukrainian territory as a “peacekeeping” force, defying warnings from the U.S. and its allies.

The move brought swift condemnation and sanctions from the Biden administration, leading European powers and the government in Kyiv while setting fears soaring that the Kremlin had set into motion an invasion that could lead to a conflict greater than anything the continent has experienced since World War II.

The Kremlin announced the order to deploy Russian troops just hours after Mr. Putin delivered an angry, rambling speech in Moscow in which he accused the Ukrainian government of being a “puppet” of the United States and formally recognized the “independence” of two stretches of eastern Ukraine known as the Donbas that have been in pro-Russian separatists’ hands since a civil war with Kyiv broke out in 2014.

Mr. Putin made the audacious move, reminiscent of the political theater before Moscow’s 2014 annexation of Ukraine‘s Crimean Peninsula, after weeks of U.S. warnings that he would try to create a pretext for sending in the Russian military to “protect” the breakaway regions of Donetsk and Luhansk. While denying any plans to invade, Mr. Putin had built up at least 150,000 Russian troops and a flotilla of ships in recent months and surrounded its smaller neighbor on three sides.

News that Russian forces were on the move Monday night followed a Biden administration response to Mr. Putin‘s recognition of the regions by leveling U.S. sanctions to block any international investment, trade and financing in Donetsk and Luhansk.

“We strongly condemn President Putin’s decision to recognize the so-called ‘Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics’ as ‘independent,’ said Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who called the move a “clear attack on Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

SEE ALSO: China expected to indirectly back Russia — with reservations — on Ukraine

The flurry of developments sent concerns soaring that the window for diplomacy to resolve the crises may now be slammed firmly shut. European Union officials said Monday that they also were preparing to level sanctions. NATO accused Mr. Putin of undermining Ukraine‘s sovereignty and the diplomatic process to resolve the crisis.

“This further undermines Ukraine‘s sovereignty and territorial integrity, erodes efforts towards a resolution of the conflict, and violates the Minsk Agreements, to which Russia is a party,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said. “Moscow continues to fuel the conflict in eastern Ukraine by providing financial and military support to the separatists. It is also trying to stage a pretext to invade Ukraine once again.”

White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the Biden administration was preparing to elevate its response to include other “swift and severe economic measures we have been preparing in coordination with allies and partners should Russia further invade Ukraine.”

The White House will announce additional sanctions Tuesday in response to Mr. Putin’s recognition of separatist regions in Ukraine, a senior administration official said.

“We will take further measures tomorrow to hold Russia accountable for this clear violation of international law and Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity as well as Russia’s own international commitments,” the official said.

The official did not offer details about what steps the administration would take but said the penalties would not be the “swift and severe” sanctions President Biden has been threatening for weeks.

“We will observe and assess what actions Russia actually takes and respond accordingly,” the official said about imposing stronger sanctions.

The announcement was made just before Mr. Biden signed an executive order prohibiting U.S. individuals from investing in, trading with or financing activity in the two territories, which are controlled by Moscow-backed separatists.

Those penalties were imposed after Mr. Putin escalated tensions with the West by announcing that Russia would recognize the two territories’ independence.

“Our strong sense based on everything we are seeing on the ground in the areas around Ukraine to the north, to the east, to the south, is that Russia is continuing to prepare for military action that could take place in the coming hours or days,” the official said.

Despite the threat of additional sanctions, the official said the U.S. would pursue diplomacy “until the tanks roll.”

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

At an earlier meeting of Mr. 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 Mr. Putin quickly corrected him.

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

Ukrainians in Kyiv bristled at the move.

“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 the Ukrainian capital, told The Associated Press. “Let them recognize whatever they want. But in my view, it can also provoke a war because normal people will fight for their country.”

The Ukrainian government swiftly denounced the moves and said the world was watching Russia‘s aggression closely.

“Everyone realizes [the] consequences,” Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dymtro Kuleba said on Twitter. “A lot of emotions out there, but it’s exactly now that we all should calmly focus on deescalation efforts. No other way.”

Mr. Putin‘s decision stops short — for now — of a full-scale invasion of its neighbor that Washington was warning about, but it will still bring sharp consequences.

“We call upon President Putin to respect international law and the Minsk agreements and expect him not to recognize the independence of Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts,” European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell told journalists after a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Brussels, according to Reuters.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

• Jeff Mordock can be reached at jmordock@washingtontimes.com.

• David R. Sands can be reached at dsands@washingtontimes.com.

• Guy Taylor can be reached at gtaylor@washingtontimes.com.

Copyright © 2022 The Washington Times, LLC.