WASHINGTON - The United States warned on Tuesday (Feb 22) that the movement of troops ordered by Russian President Vladimir Putin into two breakaway regions of Ukraine was the "beginning of an invasion" and said it would shortly announce more severe sanctions.
Its harder stance came as Western leaders, with hopes dimming of a diplomatic solution, prepared to impose further punitive actions against Russia.
The US and its allies have warned a full invasion of the former Soviet state would trigger devastating economic consequences for Russia, but had earlier refrained from calling the troop movements as such.
The harshest move came on Tuesday from Germany, which announced it was suspending the controversial Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project to transport Russian gas into Germany without passing through Ukraine.
European Union officials said the bloc was drafting sanctions against Russia which would blacklist officials, ban trading in Russian state bonds and target trade with separatist entities, while Britain slapped sanctions on five Russian banks and three oligarchs.
The US earlier issued a limited set of sanctions which banned Americans from investing, trading and financing in the two separatist regions of Luhansk and Donetsk.
Mr Putin said on Tuesday that Moscow respected the sovereignty of other ex-Soviet republics but was making an exception with Ukraine because "it is being used by third countries to create threats towards Russia".
The Russian leader, who said he was not planning on restoring the Russian empire, had upped the ante of the crisis on Monday by formally recognising the Donetsk and Luhansk separatist republics as independent. During the fiery televised address, he railed against Ukraine and claimed it had been "created by Russia".
Shortly afterwards, Mr Putin ordered troops into the areas, which the US and Europe said could pave the way for more of the troops on Ukraine's borders to be sent in.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said Mr Putin's decision to recognise the two breakaway republics as independent was "a violation of the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine and inconsistent with the principles of the Charter of the United Nations".
However, Washington did not immediately pull the trigger on a broader set of sanctions because the troops were in the areas Russia already occupies, a US official told Reuters on Monday.
Mr Putin's moves prompted an emergency session of the United Nations Security Council, which has not been able to issue resolutions on the crisis because of Russia's veto power.
At the meeting, the US Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield slammed Mr Putin's speech as "a series of outrageous, false claims about Ukraine aimed at creating a pretext for war".
China, which has trod the fine line by acknowledging its security concerns and backing Ukraine's sovereignty, was more muted in its response.
Mr Zhang Jun, China's representative to the UN, said: "We welcome and encourage every effort for a diplomatic solution, and call on all parties concerned to continue dialogue and consultation, and seek reasonable solutions to address each other's concerns on the basis of equality and mutual respect."
Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky said in a late-night address on Monday that Ukraine remained committed to diplomacy and "was not afraid of anyone". On Tuesday, speaking alongside his Estonian counterpart, Mr Zelensky said that Ukraine was considering breaking off diplomatic ties with Russia.