MOSCOW (REUTERS) – Russian President Vladimir Putin recognised two breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine as independent on Monday (Feb 21) and ordered the Russian army to launch what Moscow called a peacekeeping operation into the area, a move that Washington said was part of Moscow's attempt to create a pretext for a further invasion of Ukraine.
Speaking at an emergency UN Security Council meeting on Tuesday, Ms Linda Thomas-Greenfield, US ambassador to the United Nations, described Russia’s order to deploy "peacekeepers" in eastern Ukraine as ‘nonsense’.
She said the consequences of Russia’s actions will be dire across Ukraine, Europe and worldwide and that the humanitarian toll will expand significantly if Moscow invaded further.
UN political affairs chief Rosemary DiCarlo warned that the risk of ‘major conflict’ was real and needed to be prevented. She reiterated that the United Nations was committed to the sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of Ukraine, within internationally recognised borders.
Earlier, Mr Putin told Russia’s Defence Ministry to deploy troops into the two regions - Donetsk and Luhansk - to “keep the peace” in a decree issued shortly after he announced recognition for Russia-backed separatists there, drawing US and European condemnation and vows of new sanctions.
A Reuters witness saw columns of military vehicles including tanks early Tuesday (Feb 22) on the outskirts of Donetsk, the capital of one of two breakaway regions of eastern Ukraine.
Tanks in a column were seen on the edge of the city and two more in another part of town. No insignia were visible.
It was not immediately clear whether the Russian military action was the start of an invasion of Ukraine that the United States and its allies have warned about for weeks.
There was no word on the size of the force Mr Putin was dispatching, when the troops would cross the border and exactly what their mission would be.
In a lengthy televised address, Mr Putin, looking visibly angry, described Ukraine as an integral part of Russia’s history and said eastern Ukraine was ancient Russian lands and that he was confident the Russian people would support his decision.
Russian state television showed the President, joined by Russia-backed separatist leaders, signing a decree recognising the independence of the two Ukrainian breakaway regions along with agreements on cooperation and friendship.
Defying Western warnings against such a move, Mr Putin had announced his decision in phone calls to the leaders of Germany and France earlier, both of whom voiced disappointment, the Kremlin said.
Moscow’s action may well torpedo a last-minute bid for a summit with US President Joe Biden to prevent Russia from invading Ukraine.
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.The rouble extended its losses as Mr Putin spoke, at one point sliding beyond 80 per dollar.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who received a solidarity call from Mr Biden, accused Russia of wrecking peace talks and ruled out territorial concessions in an address to the nation early on Tuesday.
Mr Biden will issue an executive order soon prohibiting “new investment, trade and financing by US persons to, from, or in” the two breakaway regions, the White House said. It will “also provide authority to impose sanctions on any person determined to operate in those areas of Ukraine”, White House spokesman Jen Psaki said in a statement.
Ms Psaki said measures being rolled out in response to Mr Putin’s decree were separate from sanctions the US and its allies have been readying if Russia invades Ukraine.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the executive order “is designed to prevent Russia from profiting off of this blatant violation of international law”.
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said European Union countries have agreed to impose a limited set of sanctions “targeting those who are responsible” for Russia’s recognition of the rebel regions.
British Foreign Minister Liz Truss said in a Twitter post that on Tuesday, the government will announce new sanctions on Russia in response to Mr Putin’s decision.
Nato secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg accused Russia of continuing to fuel the conflict in eastern Ukraine and “trying to stage a pretext” for a further invasion. Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014.
In his address, Mr Putin delved into history as far back as the Ottoman empire and as recent as the tensions over Nato’s eastward expansion – a major irritant for Moscow in the present crisis.
With his decision, Mr Putin brushed off Western warnings that such a step would be illegal, would kill off peace negotiations and would trigger sanctions against Moscow.
“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 Luhansk People’s Republic,” Mr Putin said.
He said earlier that “if Ukraine was to join Nato it would serve as a direct threat to the security of Russia”.
US State Department employees who had been moved from Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, to the western city of Lviv will spend the night in Poland for security reasons, Mr Blinken said on Monday, as the risk of a conflict in Ukraine escalated.
“Our personnel will regularly return to continue their diplomatic work in Ukraine and provide emergency consular services,” Mr Blinken said in a statement. “They will continue to support the Ukrainian people and the Ukrainian government, coordinating on diplomatic efforts,” he said, stressing that the move did not undermine US support and commitment to Ukraine.
Meanwhile, China’s embassy in Ukraine on Tuesday warned Chinese nationals and businesses in Ukraine against venturing to “unstable” areas, but stopped short of telling them to consider leaving the country as many other nations have advised their own citizens.
"At present, the situation in eastern Ukraine has undergone major changes,” the Chinese embassy said in a statement on its website.
“The Chinese Embassy in Ukraine reminds Chinese citizens and Chinese-funded enterprises in Ukraine to pay attention to the safety notices issued locally and do not go to unstable areas.”