Putin orders Russian troops to move into eastern Ukraine

MSOCWO (AFP): President Vladimir Putin ordered Russian troops to move into two Moscow-backed rebel regions of Ukraine on Monday, defying Western threats of sanctions in a development that could set off a potentially catastrophic war with Kyiv.

United Nations Security Council in an emergency meeting denounced ‘ the order to deploy Russian troops into eastern Ukraine’.

Earlier, the Kremlin leader recognised the independence of two rebel-held areas of the Donetsk and Lugansk regions of Ukraine, paving the way for an operation to deploy part of the potential invasion force he has massed around the country.

In two official decrees, Putin instructed the defence ministry to assume “the function of peacekeeping” in the separatist-held regions.

The recognition of the breakaway republics, which form an enclave held by Russia-backed rebels since 2014, triggered international condemnation and a promise of targeted sanctions from the United States and the European Union — with a broader package of economic punishment to come in the event of invasion.

As news of the late-night recognition hit the streets of Kyiv, many were in disbelief but ready to defend their country if called on.

– ‘We are on our own land’ –

“I am very shocked,” Artem Ivaschenko, a 22-year-old cook originally from Donetsk, told AFP in the capital, calling the recognition the “scariest news” since he had fled the region eight years ago.

“I live here, I already lost a part of my homeland, it was taken away, so I will protect it.”

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky convened a meeting of his national security council and had telephone calls with several world leaders in a bid to shore up support.

“We expect clear support steps and effective support steps from our partners,” he declared in a late night televised address, vowing that Kyiv was not afraid of anyone.

“It is very important to see now who is our true friend and partner, and who will continue to scare the Russian Federation with words,” he said. “We are on our own land.”

US President Joe Biden, France’s Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz warned that Moscow’s gambit “would not go unanswered”.

The US announced sanctions, with the White House saying Biden will issue an executive order to “prohibit new investment, trade, and financing by US persons to, from, or in” the two rebel regions.

A French presidential official said the European Union was preparing a list of Russian entities and individuals to sanction in a “proportionate” response to the recognition.

Earlier, in an often angry 65-minute televised national address from his Kremlin office, Putin railed against his neighbour Ukraine as a failed state and “puppet” of the West, repeatedly suggesting it was essentially part of Russia.

He accused the authorities in Kyiv of persecuting Russian speakers and of preparing a “blitzkrieg” against the breakaway regions of Donetsk and Lugansk in Ukraine’s east.

“As for those who seized and hold power in Kyiv, we demand an immediate end to their military operations,” Putin said.

“Otherwise, all responsibility for the possible continuation of bloodshed will be fully on the conscience of the regime in power in Ukraine.”

Putin said it was necessary to “take a long overdue decision, to immediately recognise the independence” of the two regions.

He then signed partnership agreements with the rebels that declared the presence of Russian military forces “necessary to maintain peace… and ensure reliable security.”

– EU ‘will react with sanctions’ –

The recognition effectively puts an end to an already shaky peace plan in the separatist conflict, which has rumbled on since 2014, after Moscow annexed Crimea from Ukraine, and has left more than 14,000 dead.

Russia will now deploy troops with the support of separatist officials and Ukraine will either have to accept the loss of a part of its territory or face an armed conflict against its vastly more powerful neighbour.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson called the move “a flagrant violation of the sovereignty and integrity of the Ukraine”, with the UK cabinet’s emergency COBR committee due to meet Tuesday and foreign minister Liz Truss promising “new sanctions on Russia.”

EU chiefs Ursula von der Leyen and Charles Michel promised the bloc “will react with sanctions against those involved in this illegal act”.

The United States and allies including France requested an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council later Monday.

Putin told his own security council earlier Monday that there were “no prospects” for the 2015 Minsk peace accords aimed at resolving the Ukraine conflict.

– ‘Very big threat’ to Russia –

And he made clear the stakes were bigger than Ukraine, whose efforts to join NATO and the European Union have deeply angered Moscow.

“The use of Ukraine as an instrument of confrontation with our country poses a serious, very big threat to us,” Putin said. The dramatic meeting — with Putin sitting alone at a desk as his government, military and security chiefs took turns addressing him from a podium — came after weeks of tensions between Moscow and the West over Ukraine.

Western leaders warned that Russia was planning to invade its pro-Western neighbour after massing more than 150,000 troops on its borders, a claim Moscow repeatedly denied.

Tensions then spiked in recent days after an outbreak of heavy shellfire on Ukraine’s eastern frontline with the separatists and a series of reported incidents on the border with Russia.

Monitors from the OSCE European security body on Monday reported more than 3,000 new ceasefire violations in east Ukraine the day before, a high for the year.

Ukrainian officials said two soldiers and a civilian died in more shelling of frontline villages Monday.

US diplomats flee to Poland

The United States said Monday it is sending all of its diplomats in Ukraine to Poland out of security fears, hours after President Vladimir Putin ordered Russian troops into two rebel-backed regions of Ukraine.

“For security reasons, Department of State personnel currently in Lviv will spend the night in Poland,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement.

The move comes just over a week after the US relocated its embassy in Kyiv to Liviv, citing the “dramatic acceleration” in the build-up of Russia’s forces on the border.

US, allies lambast Russia over Ukraine at UN Security Council

The United States and its allies rounded on Russia during an emergency Security Council session Monday, denouncing 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 session, US Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield heaped scorn on Putin’s assertion that the Russian troops would take on a peacekeeping role in the Donetsk and Lugansk areas.

“He calls them peacekeepers. This is nonsense. We know what they really are,” Thomas-Greenfield said.

Ukraine’s ambassador Sergiy Kyslytsya insisted that his country’s borders remain “unchangeable” despite Russia’s actions.

Moscow is still “open to diplomacy for a diplomatic solution,” said Russia’s ambassador to the UN Vasily Nebenzya.

“However, allowing a new bloodbath in the Donbass is something we do not intend to do,” he added, referring to the region encompassing Donetsk and Lugansk.

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.

In a lengthy televised national address announcing his recognition of the rebel-held areas, Putin railed against Ukraine as a failed state and “puppet” of the West, repeatedly suggesting it was essentially part of Russia.

Thomas-Greenfield said the 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.

– ‘Critical’ moment –

Russia, which currently holds the rotating presidency of the Council, had wanted the session to be closed but the United States insisted it be public.

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,” DiCarlo said. “The risk of major conflict is real and needs to be prevented at all costs.”

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.”

British envoy Barbara Woodward said the council must be united in urging Russia to “deescalate” and “respect its obligations.”

“Russia has brought us to the brink. We urge Russia to step back,” Woodward said, as Martin Kimani of Kenya said Russia’s move “breaches the territorial integrity of Ukraine.”

“Multilateralism lies on its deathbed tonight. It has been assaulted today, as it as it has been by other powerful states in the recent past,” Kimani said.