Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered troops into Ukraine on Monday, just hours after he formally recognized the independence of two Moscow-backed breakaway regions in the eastern part of the country.
The order will likely be seen as another escalation of the conflict between Ukraine and Russia, on a day when tensions rose as Putin moved forward with the formal recognition of two breakaway regions and delivered a lengthy speech about the relationship between the two nations.
Putin framed the troop movement as a “peacekeeping” effort in both regions. His decision to recognize both regions was seen by the US and its European allies as a dramatic provocation and part of a pretext to invade Ukraineand it led to the US and the European Union to announce sanctions targeting the two areas.
Many experts believed Moscow’s formal recognition would effectively scuttle a previous cease-fire agreement that some Western allies hoped could provide a route out of the crisis.
In a wide-ranging televised speech Monday evening, Putin described Ukraine as a historical part of Russia that was illegitimately taken from Moscow and is now run by a “puppet regime” controlled by the US and the West.
“Ukraine is not just a neighboring country. They are part of our culture,” he said.
Noting that Ukraine has taken down some of its Soviet-era statueshe warned Kyiv: “You want decommunization? We will show you what it’s like.”
He then signed a decree formally recognizing the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic, which have been controlled by Russian-backed separatists since 2014.
Alongside him were Denis Pushilin and Leonid Pasechnik, the heads of the Donetsk and Luhansk republics.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said his country unequivocally sees Putin’s action as a violation of its sovereignty and territorial integrity. It could mean a unilateral withdrawal from the Minsk agreements that sought to end war in the Donbas region, he said.
“All responsibility for the consequences in connection with these decisions rests with the political leadership of the Russian Federation,” Zelenskyy said in an address late Monday.
“We are not afraid of anything or anyone,” he said later in the address, referring to Russia’s presence in Donbas since 2014.
“We owe nothing to anyone, and we will not give anything to anyone,” Zelenskyy said, “and we are sure of that, because now is not February 2014, but February 2022 – another country, another army, one goal – peace, peace in Ukraine. Glory to Ukraine! ”
The US ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, condemned Putin’s actions at an emergency meeting of its Security Council late Monday.
“He wants to demonstrate that through force he can make a farce for the UN,” she said. “There will be a swift and severe response were Russia to further invade Ukraine.”
Thomas-Greenfield called on other members to join in solidarity against Russia’s actions. “No one can stand on the sidelines,” she said.
“Putin wants the world to travel back in time, to a time before the UN, to a time when empires ruled the world,” she said. “Russia thinks it is 1919. It is not. It is 2022.”
In addressing the meeting, the United Kingdom’s permanent representative to the UN, Barbara Woodward, stated: “Russia has brought us to the brink. We urge Russia to step back. ”
The US State Department said late Monday that the personnel in Lviv, a city in western Ukraine, will spend the night in Poland to keep them safe.
“Our personnel will regularly return to continue their diplomatic work in Ukraine and provide emergency consular services,” the State Department said in a statement.
The US evacuated most of its embassy staff in Kyiv on Feb. 12 and moved operations to Lviv because of concerns about Russia’s aggression in the region.
“We strongly reiterate our recommendation to US citizens to leave Ukraine immediately,” the State Department said.
Earlier, Zelenskyy announced that he had spoken with President Joe Biden and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. A White House official said the call lasted about 35 minutes.
In a readout of Biden’s call with Zelenskyy, the White House said Biden “strongly condemned Putin’s decision to purportedly recognize the ‘independence'” of Donetsk and Luhansk.
“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,” the White House continued.
Biden followed up his call by signing an executive order prohibiting US investment and trade in the Ukrainian breakaway regions. The order allows the administration to sanction any person who operates in those areas.
“We have anticipated a move like this from Russia and are ready to respond immediately,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said in a statement. “To be clear: these measures are separate from and would be in addition to the swift and severe economic measures we have been preparing in coordination with Allies and partners should Russia further invade Ukraine.”
The EU condemned Putin’s recognition of the two regions in eastern Ukraine “in the strongest possible terms.”
“This step is a blatant violation of international law as well as of the Minsk agreements,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and European Council President Charles Michel said in a joint statement. “The Union will react with sanctions against those involved in this illegal act.”
Biden also held calls with French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz. In a separate readout, the White House said Biden and the two European leaders “discussed how they will continue to coordinate their response on the next steps.”
In addition, the US congressional delegation to the Munich Security Conference pledged to “work towards” emergency legislation that “will best support our NATO allies and the people of Ukraine, and support freedom and safety around the world.”
“No matter what happens in the coming days, we must assure that the dictator Putin and his corrupt oligarchs pay a devastating price for their decisions,” said a statement from the bipartisan group, led by Sens. Lindsey Graham, RS.C., and Sheldon Whitehouse, DR.I.
Over the past week, the Russian Parliament and top officials have asked Putin to formally recognize the Ukrainian regions. Earlier Monday, the Moscow-backed leaders of the two breakaway regions had formally asked Putin to do the same.
Last week, separatist leaders called for evacuations of civilians to Russia, warning of an imminent Ukrainian offensive. Ukraine has repeatedly denied any plans to carry out attacks on the region, saying it wants a resolution by diplomatic means.
More than 60,000 evacuees have arrived in Russia as of Monday, according to Russian emergency ministry officials.
Meanwhile, Biden administration officials have discussed plans with the Ukrainian government for Zelenskyy to leave Kyiv in the event of a Russian invasion, according to two people familiar with the discussions.
Under a plan that has been discussed, Zelenskyy would relocate to Lviv, about 50 miles from the Polish border, the people familiar with the discussions said.
In a series of phone calls that dragged late into Sunday night, Macron tried to broker a meeting between Biden and Putin to avert Europe’s gravest crisis since the Cold War.
Biden accepted a meeting with Putin “in principle” if Russia does not invade Ukraine first, according to the White House. The Kremlin said there were “no concrete plans” for a summit but that it had not ruled one out.
A US official and another person with knowledge of the matter said Sunday that the US had obtained intelligence showing that Russian military officials were given an order to go ahead with an invasion.
On Monday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said he would meet Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Geneva on Thursday – a possible precursor to a Biden-Putin summit. Blinken has said the meeting would be off if Russia invades Ukraine.
Russia has been amassing tens of thousands of troops near Ukraine’s borders in recent weeks, prompting fears of an invasion that it firmly denies it is planning.
Moscow has extended massive military drills with its close ally Belarus, to Ukraine’s north. The drills were meant to wrap up Sunday, adding to the tension and speculation that Russia could use the military buildup there to attack Ukraine from the north.
The renewed flurry of diplomacy comes amid increased shelling in Ukraine, where independent monitors over the weekend reported a marked rise in the number of cease-fire violations.
The US and its allies have accused Russia of planning to stage “false flag” operations in the region that could be used as an excuse for an incursion.
Since the shelling in the region began escalating Thursday, the Ukrainian forces and separatists have traded blame and accused each other of provocations. Ukraine’s military said two Ukrainian soldiers were killed in the increased violence over the weekend, and the separatist forces reported two civilian deaths Sunday.
On Monday, both Ukrainian forces and separatists reported continued shelling of residential settlements.
Ukraine said late Sunday that the separatist forces fired on rebel-controlled Luhansk in a provocation aimed at laying blame on the Ukrainian forces.
Meanwhile, Russia’s FSB security service said Monday that a shell from Ukrainian territory destroyed a border guard post in Russia’s Rostov region but caused no casualties, the state-run Interfax news agency reported. The incident occurred about 500 feet from the border between Russia and Ukraine, Interfax cited the FSB as saying.
Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov told reporters that Ukraine had “nothing to do” with the attack. In a separate statement, Ukraine’s border service called FSB’s claims “an outright provocation.”
Separately, Moscow said Monday that Ukrainian military saboteurs had tried to enter Russian territory, leading to five deaths – an accusation Kyiv has dismissed.
Fears of a Russian invasion have caused collateral damage for the Ukrainian economybut Russia’s markets also showed signs of nervousness Monday.
The ruble slid to a more than three-week low, and Russian stocks plunged, Reuters reported.