MOSCOW — A long-feared Russian invasion of Ukraine appeared to be imminent Monday, if not already underway, with Russian President Vladimir Putin ordering forces into separatist regions of eastern Ukraine.
A vaguely worded decree signed by Putin did not say if troops were on the move, and it cast the order as an effort to “maintain peace.” But it appeared to dash the slim remaining hopes of averting a major conflict in Europe that could cause massive casualties, energy shortages on the continent and economic chaos around the globe.
Putin’s directive came hours after he recognized the separatist areas in a rambling, fact-bending discourse on European history. They were able to receive military support. This angered Western leaders who consider such a move to be a breaching the international order and created a frenetic scramble for U.S. and other countries to react.
The U.N. Security Council held a rare overnight emergency meeting Monday to underscore the need for action. It was requested by Ukraine and the U.S. as well as other countries. Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, sought to project calm, telling the country: “We are not afraid of anyone or anything. We don’t owe anyone anything. And we won’t give anything to anyone.”
The White House issued an executive order to prohibit U.S. investment and trade in the separatist regions, and additional measures — likely sanctions — were to be announced Tuesday. A senior official in Washington said that the new sanctions were independent from what Washington had prepared for a Russian invasion. He spoke on condition of anonymity.
The developments came amid a spike in skirmishes in the eastern regions that Western powers believe Russia could use as a pretext for an attack on the western-looking democracy that has defied Moscow’s attempts to pull it back into its orbit.
Putin justification for his action was a long-reaching prerecorded speech in which he blamed NATO for the crisis and called the U.S.-led NATO an existential threat. Sweeping through more than a century of history, he painted today’s Ukraine as a modern construct that is inextricably linked to Russia. He charged that Ukraine had inherited Russia’s historic lands and after the Soviet collapse was used by the West to contain Russia.
“I consider it necessary to take a long-overdue decision: To immediately recognize the independence and sovereignty of Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic,” Putin said.
Afterward he signed decrees recognizing the Donetsk and Luhansk regions’ independence, eight years after fighting erupted between Russia-backed separatists and Ukrainian forces, and called on lawmakers to approve measures paving the way for military support.
Ukraine and the West accused Russia of backing the separatists until now. Moscow however has refuted that accusation saying that Russians fighting there were only volunteers.
At an earlier meeting of Putin’s Security Council, a stream of top officials argued for recognizing the regions’ independence. At one point, one slipped up and said he favored including them as part of Russian territory — but Putin quickly corrected him.
Recognizing the separatist regions’ independence is likely to be popular in Russia, where many share Putin’s worldview. Russian state media released images of people in Donetsk launching fireworks, waving large Russian flags and playing Russia’s national anthem.
The Ukrainians of Kyiv were meanwhile astonished at this move.
“Why should Russia recognize (the rebel-held regions)? If neighbors come to you and say, ‘This room will be ours,’ would you care about their opinion or not? It’s your flat, and it will be always your flat,” said Maria Levchyshchyna, a 48-year-old painter in the Ukrainian capital. “Let them recognize whatever they want. But in my view, it can also provoke a war, because normal people will fight for their country.”
The U.S. warned Russia that it has already declared war on Ukraine with an estimated 150,000 Russian soldiers positioned along three sides. In a desperate effort to prevent war, Biden was still willing to meet with Putin through the French President Emmanuel Macron.
Russia could move in and the summit will not take place, however, there are still hopes for a face to face summit that would revive diplomatic efforts to stop a conflict which could result in massive losses of life as well as economic destruction across Europe. Europe is dependent heavily on Russian energy.
Russia says it wants Western guarantees that NATO won’t allow Ukraine and other former Soviet countries to join as members — and Putin said Monday that a simple moratorium on Ukraine’s accession wouldn’t be enough. Moscow has also demanded the alliance halt weapons deployments to Ukraine and roll back its forces from Eastern Europe — demands flatly rejected by the West.
Macron’s office said both leaders had “accepted the principle of such a summit,” to be followed by a broader meeting that would include other “relevant stakeholders to discuss security and strategic stability in Europe.”
U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan, meanwhile, said the administration has always been ready to talk to avert a war — but was also prepared to respond to any attack.
Putin’s announcement shattered a 2015 peace deal signed in Minsk requiring Ukrainian authorities to offer broad self-rule to the rebel regions, a major diplomatic coup for Moscow.
That deal was resented by many in Ukraine who saw it as a capitulation, a blow to the country’s integrity and a betrayal of national interests. Putin and other officials claimed Monday that Ukrainian authorities had shown little interest in the implementation of it.
Over 14,000 people have been killed since conflict erupted in the eastern industrial heartland of in 2014, shortly after Moscow annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula.
The potential for flashpoints grew. On Monday, shelling was continuing along the tension-filled line of contact that separated the two opposing armies. Unusually, Russia said it had fended off an “incursion” from Ukraine — which Ukrainian officials denied. Russia also decided to extend military drills held in Belarus. This could be used as an opportunity for an attack against Kyiv.
With hundreds of explosives being recorded every day, Ukraine and separatist rebels are now entangled in a dispute over massive cease-fire violations.
Although separatists claimed that Ukrainian forces had been firing on residential areas of the country, Associated Press journalists who report from many towns and villages along the border of the Ukrainian-controlled territory have not seen any significant escalation of violence from Ukraine and found evidence of an increase in shelling that decimated homes and ripped apart roads.
Some residents of the main rebel-held city of Donetsk described sporadic shelling by Ukrainian forces, but they added that it wasn’t on the same scale as earlier in the conflict.
Separatist officials Monday claimed that four civilians had been killed in the last 24 hours by Ukrainian shelling, while several more were injured. Ukraine’s military said two Ukrainian soldiers were killed over the weekend, and another serviceman was wounded Monday.
Ukrainian military spokesman Pavlo Kovalchyuk insisted that Ukrainian forces weren’t returning fire.
In the village of Novognativka on the Ukraine government-controlled side, 60-year-old Ekaterina Evseeva, said the shelling was worse than at the height of fighting early in the conflict.
“We are on the edge of nervous breakdowns,” she said, her voice trembling. “And there is nowhere to run.”
In another worrying sign, the Russian military said it killed five suspected “saboteurs” who crossed from Ukraine into Russia’s Rostov region and also destroyed two armored vehicles and took a Ukrainian serviceman prisoner. Ukrainian Border Guard spokesman Andriy Demchenko dismissed the claim as “disinformation.”
The U.S. government sent an open letter to UN human rights chief, claiming that Moscow had compiled a list containing names of Ukrainians who would be executed or detained in camps following the invasion. The AP obtained the original New York Times report.
Dmitry Peskov (Kremlin spokesperson) said the claim was false and there is no such list.
—Karmanau reported in Kyiv (Ukraine) and Cook in Brussels. Lori Hinnant was in Kyiv, Angela Charlton was in Paris, Zeke Miller, Aamer Madhani and Aamer Müller in Munich, Germany, Geir Moulson, Robert Burns and Matthew Lee were in Berlin, and Darlene Superville, Washington, contributed to the report.