Kyiv braces for conflict, West sanctions Russia after Putin orders troops into eastern Ukraine

The world was facing up to a new phase in the Ukraine crisis on Tuesday, with Kyiv bracing for a potential conflict with Russia and the West moving to impose sanctions on Moscow.

Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered troops into two breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine after recognizing their independence Monday, threatening a major escalation following months of military buildup and warnings from the West that the Kremlin was trying to create a pretext to invade its neighbor.

Moscow drew swift international condemnation, with countries including the US accusing Russia of violating international law.

Washington and its allies vowed sanctions in response to Russia’s actions, with Germany moving to halt the crucial Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline to deliver Russian natural gas to Europe.

For weeks Ukraine’s leaders have urged calm in the face of dire warnings from the United States and its allies that an invasion was imminent. But in the wake of Putin’s move, some were preparing for the worst.

Kyiv’s mayor, Vitali Klitschko, said in a video message Tuesday that Russia had declared war on its neighbor.

“From the actions of the Russian authorities, we see that Russia has in fact declared war on Ukraine. There are masses of Russian troops, who were coming there all night, “he said, referring to the two Moscow-backed separatist areas in the country’s east.

Ukraine’s defense minister, Oleksii Reznikov, said in a message to the country’s army Tuesday: “There are difficult challenges ahead. There will be losses. We will have to go through pain, overcome fear and despair. ”

Still, he urged his soldiers and generals to keep calm.

Putin’s actions late Monday came after days of escalation in the ongoing conflict between Kyiv’s forces and Russian-backed separatists in Ukraine’s east.

Russian officials have not yet acknowledged any troop deployments to the rebel-controlled regions, but officials there and beyond suggested troops had already moved in. Russian decrees of independence framed the troops as “peacekeepers,” which US ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas Greenfield dismissed as “nonsense.”

European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said Tuesday that “Russian troops have entered the Donbas.” He added: “I wouldn’t say that’s a fully fledged invasion, but Russian troops are on Ukrainian soil.”

Vladislav Brig, a member of the separatist local council in Donetsk, told reporters that the Russian troops had taken up positions in the region’s north and west, the Associated Press reported.

Putin’s decision came after weeks of simmering tensions as Russia massed some 150,000 troops around Ukraine’s borders and Washington warned that Moscow was ready to invade Ukraine at any moment.

Throughout it, Ukrainian officials preached calm and told their compatriots that the possibility of an invasion was low, but that they were ready to face any threat.

On Tuesday residents in the capital Kyiv continued to go about their usual business, enjoying warm wintry weather. Women sold tulips on the side of the road in the city’s center, while metro trains were packed at the start of a work day.

Kyiv residents ride the subway in Ukraine’s capital Tuesday morning as life appears to run as normal. (Oksana Parafeniuk / NBC News)

But Putin was on the mind.

“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 always be your flat, ”Maria Levchyshchyna, a 48-year-old painter in the Ukrainian capital, told The Associated Press.

Russian-backed separatists in Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk regions, collectively known as the Donbass, broke away from Kyiv in 2014 and proclaimed themselves independent “people’s republics.”

Since then, they have been fighting Ukrainian forces in a prolonged conflict that has claimed thousands of lives and remains unresolved. Although Russia has denied its military presence in the region, it has been accused of propping up the separatists with weapons and financial support.

Addressing his nation in the early hours of the morning Tuesday, Ukrainian President Volodymy Zelenskyy said Kyiv unequivocally views Russia’s actions as a violation of its sovereignty and territorial integrity.

But he sought to project calm, telling Ukrainians: “There is no reason for your sleepless night.”

They woke Tuesday to what appeared to be a more perilous reality.

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