Is it a Russian 'invasion'? Ukraine, Western leaders say not yet

A Ukraine soldier in Schastia on Feb 22, a day after Russia recognised east Ukraine's separatist republics and ordered to send troops there as "peacekeepers." PHOTO: AFP

BRUSSELS (BLOOMBERG) - Western leaders are shying away from saying that Mr Vladimir Putin's move to recognise two self-proclaimed separatist republics in eastern Ukraine amounts to the invasion they had been warning would likely come, even as the Russian president orders his forces to start deploying to the breakaway areas.

In a televised address to the nation early on Tuesday (Feb 22), Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said Mr Putin's actions merely "legalised" troops he said were already present in the self-proclaimed republics since a conflict began with breakaway forces in 2014.

Russia has long backed the separatists while refuting claims it arms them or has its own soldiers in the area. It is unclear how quickly its troops might now go in, and in what number.

US President Joe Biden so far has not come out in public to make a statement as he huddled with advisers and consulted allies on the next steps.

At issue is the uncertainty that still surrounds Mr Putin's intentions from here.

He has repeatedly denied that his ultimate plan is a full-scale invasion of his neighbour, even as the United States and other allies said their intelligence showed a build up of around 150,000 soldiers and equipment that could enable one, including possible attacks on multiple cities aside from the capital, Kyiv. If troops do now go into the breakaway areas, the unknown is whether they could then push on past the line of contact between the separatists and Ukrainian forces.

So while the West has warned that any intervention in Ukraine would prompt severe economic sanctions against Russia, the discussions so far are centering around limited penalties that would target those who trade and invest in the breakaway areas. Economic activity there has already plummeted since 2014.

One notable marker was the decision by the German government on Tuesday to halt the already-delayed certification process of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia.

President Emmanuel Macron asked his government to implement "appropriate and targeted sanctions against Russian interests", Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire told reporters on Tuesday, without offering details.

Officials in European Union member states signalled a united front, with Mr Le Maire saying Putin "chose to escalate tensions".

But they have largely refrained from using the word "invasion" so far. Even the leaders of Baltic states, who have been among Russia's fiercest critics, are holding off on such language.

"It's not yet the invasion our partners have been talking about," Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis told reporters on Tuesday. "But it's a very steep escalation."

In the US, the response varied across the ideological spectrum with some of the more moderate Republican lawmakers immediately drawing the conclusion that what Mr Putin did was an invasion.

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Wyoming Representative Liz Cheney, who was a consistent critic of former president Donald Trump, was the most direct and tweeted right out the of the gates: "Russia has invaded Ukraine."

US Senator Bill Cassidy of Louisiana said in a statement: "Russia invading Ukraine violates every international norm."

Democrats were careful in their choice of words. Mr Chris Coons of Delaware, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, came out to say: "President Putin in a rambling, grievance-fuelled speech today has made clear he intends to further invade Ukraine in a blatant effort to redraw the borders of Eastern Europe according to the whims of Moscow."

Indeed, the term "further" seems to be the key, the idea being that Russia has simply made official what Ukraine has long called the reality on the ground.

In Britain, Health Secretary Sajid Javid told Sky News that "you could conclude the invasion of Ukraine has begun" with Mr Putin's actions on Monday. But Prime Minister Boris Johnson seemed to take a more cautious approach.

British sanctions will hit the "economic interests that have been supporting Russia's war machine," the Press Association quoted him as saying.

"They will hit Russia very hard and there is a lot more that we are going to do in the event of an invasion."

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