Ukraine-Russia Crisis: Everything We Know As Fears For War Grow

After recognising breakaway regions, Putin orders Russian troops to Ukraine to "maintain the peace”. The US and European allies promise sanctions.
Leonid Pasechnik, head of the Lugansk People's Republic, Denis Pushilin, head of the Donetsk People's Republic, and Russia's president Vladimir Putin during a ceremony to sign decrees recognising their independence.
Leonid Pasechnik, head of the Lugansk People's Republic, Denis Pushilin, head of the Donetsk People's Republic, and Russia's president Vladimir Putin during a ceremony to sign decrees recognising their independence.
Alexei Nikolsky via Getty Images

Global efforts to avert a Russian invasion of Ukraine have been dealt a fresh blow as Vladimir Putin recognised two breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine as independent and dispatched troops to the territories.

The separatists in Donetsk and Lugansk – the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic and the Lugansk People’s Republic – have controlled swathes of the Donbas region during a near eight-year war with Ukrainian government forces. On Monday, the Russian president said the decision to recognise their independence and sovereignty “should have been made a long time ago”.

Escalating tensions further, Putin later ordered the Russian army to launch what Moscow called a “peacekeeping” operation in the area – a move likely to be interpreted by the US and its European allies as troops entering a sovereign country and violating international law. As has long been feared, Ukraine and the West are now on high alert for Russia having fabricated the pretext to invade.

The move is an apparent attempt to redraw borders, and is set against a backdrop of an estimated 150,000 troops remaining amassed near Ukraine’s border. In response, Western leaders promised to a fresh round of sanctions on Russia and again warned a wider military campaign could come at any time.

It was remains unclear whether Putin’s latest land-grab (Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014) is the first major step toward a full-scale offensive that Western governments have warned about for weeks.

What Is The Significance Of Donetsk And Lugansk?

The conflict between Ukrainian forces and Russian-backed rebels in Ukraine’s eastern industrial heartland of Donbas began in 2014, and has claimed at least 14,000 lives. While fighting has been largely quiet of late, heavy shelling has increased in recent days.

The Ukraine government has long-feared Russia would attempt to annex the region, and has criticised Moscow’s efforts to ratchet up tension in the two areas, which are overwhelmingly Russian speaking. Among them, the fast-tracking of as many as 800,000 Russian passports to Donbas residents since 2019 has been described by the European Union as an attack on Ukrainian sovereignty.

PA Graphics via PA Graphics/Press Association Images

Moscow has also been accused of bankrolling the separatist administrations, while the regions have abandoned the Ukrainian hryvnia in favour of the Russian rouble as their official currencies and follow the Russian national curriculum instead of that taught in Ukraine. Moscow denies being a party to their war.

What Has Putin Done?

On Monday, in a long, ranting address, Putin – looking visibly angry – vented a long list of grievances as he described Ukraine as an integral part of Russia’s history. He said eastern Ukraine was ancient Russian lands and after the Soviet collapse was used by the West to contain Russia.

In his address, Putin delved into history as far back as the Ottoman empire and as recent as the tensions over the eastward expansion of the Atlantic military alliance, NATO. His demands that Ukraine drop its long-term goal of joining the group have been repeatedly rebuffed by Kyiv and NATO states.

Russian state television showed Putin, joined by separatist leaders, signing a decree recognising the independence of the two Ukrainian breakaway regions along with agreements on cooperation and friendship.

The decree allows Russia to sign treaties with rebel territories in eastern Ukraine and openly send troops and weapons there. It effectively shatters the 2015 Minsk peace agreements, which ended large-scale fighting in the region until the recent spikes in violence.

It also follows the leaders of the two separatist areas announcing an “evacuation” of residents, claiming Ukraine had intensified shelling and was planning an attack. Ukraine has repeatedly said it is not planning any attack, and dismissed what it called “Russian disinformation reports”.

What Does ‘Peace Keeping’ Mean?

Hours after signing the first decree, Putin used a second edict to order Russia’s defence ministry to deploy troops into the two breakaway regions to “keep the peace”.

It was not immediately clear the size of the force that Putin was dispatching, when they would cross the border into Ukraine and exactly what their mission would be. Reuters reported a witness seeing tanks and other military hardware moving through the separatist-controlled city of Donetsk.

The West is likely to interpret the move less charitably than “peace keeping”. UK prime minister Boris Johnson last week warned of sanctions being brought “as soon as the first Russian toe cap” crosses further into Ukraine, and the latest foray could well pass that threshold.

All these developments fit a pattern repeatedly predicted by Western governments – Russia making up a reason to invade by blaming Ukraine for attacks and relying on pleas for help from pro-Russia separatists.

How Has The West Reacted?

Putin’s move defied Western warnings against such action, and is an explicit rejection of a seven-year-old ceasefire mediated by France and Germany. It also narrows the diplomatic options to avoid war.

It’s possible Moscow’s action will torpedo a last-minute bid for a summit with US president Joe Biden to prevent a Russian invasion. The White House said Biden had agreed “in principle” to meeting Putin only if the Kremlin refrained from launching an assault on Ukraine.

Putin had announced his decision in phone calls to the leaders of Germany and France earlier, both of whom voiced disappointment, the Kremlin said.

The moves drew US and European condemnation and vows of new sanctions. For all the posturing and vows of reprisal from Western leaders, direct military intervention has so far been ruled out.

Biden, who also spoke to French president Emmanuel Macron and German chancellor Olaf Scholz, quickly signed an executive order to halt all US business activity in the breakaway regions and ban import of all goods from those areas.

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.” The White House said the measures were separate from sanctions the US and its allies have been readying if Russia invades Ukraine.

Germany, France and the UK have also agreed to respond with sanctions, with British foreign secretary Liz Truss poised to unveil a fresh crackdown on Tuesday.

Prime minister Johnson will chair a Cobra meeting on Tuesday morning to discuss the latest developments in Ukraine, as he warned a Russian invasion could happen “in the coming hours and days”.

The meeting, which is scheduled to take place at 6.30am, will be used to “coordinate the UK response”, including agreeing a “significant package of sanctions to be introduced immediately”, according to a Downing Street spokesperson.

Johnson told Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy that he believes a Russian invasion is “a real possibility in the coming hours and days”, No 10 said. He earlier said at a Downing Street conference that the Russian president’s decision to acknowledge Donetsk and Luhansk’s claims to independence was a “very dark sign” that is “plainly in breach of international law”.

The UN Security Council is meeting publicly on Ukraine on Monday night following a request by the US, Britain and France. The UK’s permanent representative to the UN, Dame Barbara Woodward, told the emergency meeting that “Russia has brought us to the brink”, as she urged the country to “step back”.

The European Union also announced it would impose sanctions in response to Russia’s recognition of the two states. In a joint statement, European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, and European Council president, Charles Michel, said it was an “illegal act”.

Nato secretary general Jens Stoltenberg said: “This further undermines Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, erodes efforts towards a resolution of the conflict, and violates the Minsk Agreements, to which Russia is a party.”


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