MOSCOW | Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered forces Monday to “maintain peace” in separatist regions of eastern Ukraine in a further escalation of tensions that followed the Kremlin’s recognition of the areas’ independence despite warnings of sanctions and international condemnation.
The Kremlin decree, spelled out in an order signed by Putin, left unclear when, or even whether, troops would enter Ukraine. But it further fueled fears of an imminent invasion and underscored the steep challenges the U.S. and Western nations face in staving off a military conflict they have portrayed as near-inevitable.
The Kremlin’s announcement came just hours after Putin, in a rambling, fact-bending discourse on European history, recognized the independence of the eastern separatist regions, paving the way to provide them military support and antagonizing Western leaders who regard such a move as an unjust breach of world order.
White House spokesperson Jen Psaki said President Joe Biden “will soon issue an Executive Order that will prohibit new investment, trade, and financing” in the regions, or on anyone “determined to operate in those areas of Ukraine.” She said those measures would be separate from tougher sanctions the U.S. is preparing in case of a Russian invasion.
In a joint statement, European Union Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Council President Charles Michel called it “a blatant violation of international law” and said, without elaborating, that the bloc “will react with sanctions.” Leaders of France and other nations condemned the move as well.
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 justified his decision in a far-reaching, pre-recorded speech blaming NATO for the current crisis and calling the U.S.-led alliance an existential threat to Russia. 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.
Until now, Ukraine and the West have accused Russia of supporting the separatists, but Moscow has denied that, saying that Russians who fought there were 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.
Ukrainians in Kyiv, meanwhile, bristled at the 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.”
With an estimated 150,000 Russian troops massed on three sides of Ukraine, the U.S. has warned that Moscow has already decided to invade. Still, Biden and Putin tentatively agreed to a meeting brokered by French President Emmanuel Macron in a last-ditch effort to avoid war.
If Russia moves in, the meeting will be off, but the prospect of a face-to-face summit resuscitated hopes in diplomacy to prevent a conflict that could cause massive casualties and huge economic damage across Europe, which is heavily dependent 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.
“So when President Macron asked President Biden yesterday if he was prepared in principle to meet with President Putin, if Russia did not invade, of course President Biden said yes,” he told NBC’s “Today” show on Monday. “But every indication we see on the ground right now in terms of the disposition of Russian forces is that they are, in fact, getting prepared for a major attack on Ukraine.”
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 argued Monday that Ukrainian authorities have shown no appetite for implementing 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.
Potential flashpoints multiplied. Sustained shelling continued Monday along the tense line of contact separating the opposing forces. Unusually, Russia said it had fended off an “incursion” from Ukraine — which Ukrainian officials denied. And Russia decided to prolong military drills in Belarus, which could offer a staging ground for an attack on the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv.
Ukraine and the separatist rebels have traded blame for massive cease-fire violations with hundreds of explosions recorded daily.
While separatists have charged that Ukrainian forces were firing on residential areas, Associated Press journalists reporting from several towns and villages in Ukrainian-held territory along the line of contact have not witnessed any notable escalation from the Ukrainian side and have documented signs of intensified shelling by the separatists that destroyed homes and ripped up 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.
The separatist authorities said Monday that at least four civilians were killed by Ukrainian shelling over the past 24 hours, and several others were wounded. 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.”
Amid the heightened invasion fears, the U.S. administration sent a letter to the United Nations human rights chief claiming that Moscow has compiled a list of Ukrainians to be killed or sent to detention camps after the invasion. The letter, first reported by the New York Times, was obtained by the AP.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the claim was a lie and no such list exists.
Karmanau reported from Kyiv, Ukraine, and Cook from Brussels. Lori Hinnant in Kyiv; Angela Charlton in Paris; Zeke Miller and Aamer Madhani in Munich, Germany; Geir Moulson in Berlin; and Ellen Knickmeyer, Robert Burns, Matthew Lee and Darlene Superville in Washington contributed to this report.