UNITED NATIONS (AFP, REUTERS, NYTIMES) - The United States and its allies rounded on Russia during an emergency Security Council session on Monday (Feb 21), denouncing Mr Vladimir Putin’s recognition of rebel-held areas in Ukraine and his ordered deployment of troops as a gross violation of international law and “pretext for war”.
Addressing the council, US Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield heaped scorn on Mr Putin’s assertion that the Russian troops would take on a peacekeeping role in the Donetsk and Luhansk areas.
“He calls them peacekeepers. This is nonsense. We know what they really are,” Ms Thomas-Greenfield said.
Even China, which often sides with Russia in disputes at the Security Council, offered an unusually terse comment that suggested some unease with the Russian actions over Ukraine. Ambassador Zhang Jun said “all parties concerned must exercise restraint and avoid any actions that may fuel tensions.”
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said his country may break off diplomatic relations with Russia after Moscow's decision to recognise the two breakaway regions of eastern Ukraine as independent.
Ukraine’s ambassador Sergiy Kyslytsya insisted that his country’s borders remain “unchangeable” despite Russia’s actions.
The Kremlin, meanwhile, said the Russian side remained open to all diplomatic contact and that Kyiv cutting ties with Moscow would only worsen the already tense situation.
Russia’s ambassador to the UN, Vasily Nebenzya, said Moscow is still “open to diplomacy for a diplomatic solution” – but warned against what he dubbed Ukrainian aggression.
“Allowing a new bloodbath in the Donbass is something we do not intend to do,” he added, referring to the region encompassing Donetsk and Luhansk.
Mr Putin’s order has been widely seen as paving the way for an operation to deploy part of the potential invasion force he has massed on Ukraine’s borders.
Mr Putin said on Tuesday that Russia respected the sovereignty of other ex-Soviet republics and that Moscow had made an exception with Ukraine because he said it was under foreign control, the TASS news agency reported.
In a lengthy televised national address announcing his recognition of the rebel-held areas the previous day, Mr Putin railed against Ukraine as a failed state and “puppet” of the West, repeatedly suggesting it was essentially part of Russia.
Ms Thomas-Greenfield said that speech amounted to a “series of outrageous, false claims” that were aimed at “creating a pretext for war”.
Her remarks came just before a White House spokesperson told AFP that Washington on Tuesday would impose sanctions on Moscow following Putin’s order.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz put the certification of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline on ice.
“We must reassess the situation, in particular regarding Nord Stream 2,” Mr Scholz said at a news conference with his Irish counterpart, adding that the economy ministry would look again at the certification process given Russia’s actions.
Russia – which currently holds the rotating presidency of the Security Council – had wanted the emergency session to be closed, but the US insisted it be public.
Multiple countries had requested Monday’s emergency meeting based on a letter from Ukraine that demanded its representative be able to attend.
Speaking before the UN late Monday, Mr Kyslytsya challenged the Security Council to defy Russian intimidation, saying: “The United Nations is sick.”
“It’s been hit by the virus spread by the Kremlin. Will it succumb to this virus?” he said. “It is in the hands of the membership.”
The Under-Secretary-General for Political and Peacebuilding Affairs, Rosemary DiCarlo, voiced “regret” that Russian troops were ordered to eastern Ukraine.
“The next hours and days will be critical,” Ms DiCarlo said. “The risk of major conflict is real and needs to be prevented at all costs.”
Mr Putin’s recognition of the separatist republics effectively buries a fragile 2015 peace plan for the conflict, and opens the door for direct Russian military involvement.
Moscow provided no details or date for any deployment of the “peacekeeping” forces, only saying that it “comes into force from the day it was signed”.
Russia’s ambassador to the United Nations, Mr Nebenzya, warned Western powers to “think twice” and not worsen the situation.
A Reuters witness saw tanks and other military hardware moving through the separatist-controlled city of Donetsk. No insignia were visible on the vehicles.
Ukraine’s military said on its Facebook page it had recorded 84 cases of shelling by separatists who it said had opened fire on about 40 settlements along the front line with heavy artillery, in breach of ceasefire agreements.
The Interfax news agency cited a separatist official as saying Ukrainian saboteurs detonated a mine on a road killing three civilians.
Britain will impose sanctions on five Russian banks and three "very high-net worth individuals", Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Tuesday.
He had earlier said Britain would immediately impose hard economic sanctions on Russia.
“We will immediately institute a package of economic sanctions,” Mr Johnson told reporters, adding that the sanctions would be “targeted not just at entities in Donbass and Luhansk and Donetsk, but in Russia itself – targeting Russian economic interests as hard as we can".
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov brushed off the threat of sanctions, saying the West would impose them regardless of events and describing the response to Russia’s recognition of two breakaway Ukrainian regions as predictable.
“Our European, American, British colleagues will not stop and will not calm down until they have exhausted all their possibilities for the so-called ‘punishment of Russia’. They are already threatening us with all manner of sanctions or, as they say now, ‘the mother of all sanctions’,” Mr Lavrov said. “Well, we’re used to it. We know that sanctions will be imposed anyway, in any case. With or without reason.”
Russia has denied planning to attack its neighbour, but it has massed troops on Ukraine’s borders and threatened “military-technical” action unless it receives sweeping security guarantees, including that Ukraine will never join Nato.
Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said the recognition of the two regions did not affect Russia’s readiness for talks with the US, the Tass news agency reported.
Britain said it had drawn up sanctions to target those complicit in the violation of Ukraine’s territorial integrity, and those measures would come into force on Tuesday.
European Union member states’ ambassadors will meet on Tuesday to discuss possible sanctions with limited sanctions a possible option, an EU official said.
An EU diplomat said separately the meeting would consider how to act on a statement made by EU leaders on Monday that the bloc would “react with sanctions against those involved in this illegal act”.
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.
British UN envoy Barbara Woodward said the council must be united in urging Russia to “de-escalate” and “respect its obligations.”
“Russia has brought us to the brink. We urge Russia to step back,” Ms Woodward said.
Ms Geraldine Byrne Nason, Ireland’s ambassador to the UN, called Russia’s actions “a flagrant violation of international law,” saying the “unilateral step” had “cast into doubt all the diplomatic efforts of past weeks”.
Mr Martin Kimani of Kenya pointed out that many countries were “birthed by the ending of empire” and urged against “dangerous nostalgia” for past borders, saying Russia’s move “breaches the territorial integrity of Ukraine”.
“Multilateralism lies on its deathbed tonight. It has been assaulted today, as it has been by other powerful states in the recent past,” Mr Kimani said.
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.
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.”