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Russian troops have moved into eastern Ukraine, rumbling across the border into areas held by pro-Moscow rebels, the European Union's top diplomat said Tuesday.
“I wouldn’t say that’s a fully fledged invasion, but Russian troops are on Ukrainian soil," Josep Borrell, the EU's foreign policy chief, said.
His comment came a day after Russian President Vladimir Putin raised the specter of war by recognizing two separatist-held enclaves in Ukraine as independent breakaway republics and ordering troops into the area — his most dangerous provocation yet with Washington over the fate of a nation that could redraw the map of Eastern Europe and upset the decades-long security architecture on the continent.
The move to send soldiers to carry out "peacekeeping functions" has further inflamed animosities with European capitals. It comes amid escalating concern over whether Putin will order a full-on invasion in Ukraine — a scenario that could ignite fighting reminiscent of World War II — or stop at the borders of the separatist enclaves, which make up roughly a third of the eastern Ukrainian region known as the Donbas.
Putin's actions Monday drew swift rebuke and condemnation from the international community. President Biden and the European Union announced economic sanctions aimed at cutting trade and business with the enclaves. The U.N. Security Council met in an emergency session Monday night. It appeared by day's end, though, that diplomacy was failing and the region was veering inexorably toward a conflict that could lead to mass casualties and tens of thousands of refugees.
"We'll continue to pursue diplomacy until the tanks roll. We are under no illusions about what is likely to come next," said a senior Biden administration official. The official portrayed Putin's comments in stark terms: "This was a speech to the Russian people to justify a war. This is Potemkin politics. President Putin is accelerating the very conflict he's creating."
The announcement of the troop deployment came shortly after Putin recognized the independence of the breakaway Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic in eastern Ukraine.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov said Tuesday that Russia's recognition of the two self-proclaimed republics encompassed the territory the secessionists held when they first declared independence in 2014. Ukrainian forces later wrested back control of two-third of that land in the Donbas. Peskov's statement raises the specter of Russian troops imminently penetrating farther into Ukraine, well beyond the present "line of contact" between Ukrainian forces and the pro-Moscow rebels.
Shelling continued in Donetsk and Luhansk. The Ukrainian military said two of its soldiers were killed and 12 were wounded in barrages Monday. The artillery fire persisted into Tuesday morning.
Though his ultimate intentions remain unknown, Putin's almost-hourlong address to the Russian people Monday alternated between furious anti-Western rhetoric and the excoriation of Ukraine as a puppet nation, seemingly building a case for the total subjugation of Russia's neighbor.
Sitting back in his chair behind a wooden desk, Putin began a rambling speech that detailed Ukraine’s origins and its territorial evolution across history. He said, in essence, Ukraine was a Bolshevik-constructed amalgam created entirely by Russia.
"Ukraine was never a true nation," he said.
In his telling, Ukraine had become a Western puppet, a corruption-riddled government that has delivered only "bankruptcy in a country that produced rockets and space technology" back when it was integral to the economy and mythology of the former Soviet Union. The blame, he said, lay with Western organizations and governments that had effectively plundered Ukraine's resources and left the state with no power.
"There's just no independent Ukrainian state," he said.
Putin also touched on Ukraine’s geopolitical importance and was adamant that if Ukraine was ever granted NATO membership it would be a "direct threat" to Russia. He recited with growing fury — as if a speech out of the Cold War — the list of countries that had joined NATO and were now close enough to Russia's border to present a danger. He dismissed assurances that Ukraine’s membership was a far-away prospect, if it happened at all.
“OK, not tomorrow, but what about after tomorrow?” he said.
“What does this change in a historical perspective? Nothing.”
Such questions have shaped Putin's political ideology. A former KGB agent once stationed in East Germany, Putin was shaken by the downfall of a Soviet Union he wants desperately to stitch back together. His grievances on Monday went far beyond Ukraine to include the U.S. and NATO, which he said could never accept a "large, independent country" like Russia.
"In this lies the answer to all the questions," he said.
For those reasons, he said, "I consider it necessary to make a long overdue decision: to immediately recognize the independence and sovereignty of the Donetsk People's Republic and the Luhansk People's Republic." He asked Russia's Federal Assembly to support the decision, and ratify the treaties "of friendship" and — critically — "mutual assistance" with both republics.
"And from those who seized and hold power in Kyiv, we demand an immediate cessation of hostilities," he said. "Otherwise, all responsibility for the possible continuation of the bloodshed will be fully and wholly on the conscience of the regime ruling on the territory of Ukraine."
Putin watched as separatist leaders Denis Pushilin and Leonid Pasechnik signed the decree. Putin then — with a slight smirk — scribbled his signature on the papers.
Waves of reproach and outrage came quickly, especially among European leaders for whom Putin’s words invoked the ghosts of some of the continent’s most bloody episodes, from World War II to the Balkans wars of barely a single generation ago.
And U.S. officials, who have for weeks been predicting such actions of conquest from Putin, announced they were imposing new sanctions designed to inflict pain on anyone attempting to do business with the enclaves — although it was unclear how many American businesspeople are investing in the region. The sanctions are more limited than measures the U.S. and Europe have been threatening if Putin invaded Ukraine.
While Biden administration officials huddled in consultations, the president spent more than a half hour on the telephone with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, the White House said, reassuring him of U.S. support. Zelensky confirmed the call and said he and Biden discussed "the events of the last hours" and that he'd also taken a call from British Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
"Putin’s address tonight, together with the military forces around Ukraine, represents the most outrageous rejection of the rules based order for European peace we’ve seen since WWII," Henry Bolton, a British international security expert and former politician, said on Twitter. "He’s threatened Ukraine’s right to exist and may well fabricate the excuse for a full invasion."
U.S. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said "Russia’s decision is yet another example of President Putin’s flagrant disrespect for international law and norms." Blinken was scheduled to meet this week with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in a narrowing chance to find a diplomatic solution; the last personnel at the U.S. embassy in Ukraine were evacuated Monday, mostly to Poland.
"The consequences of Russia's action will be dire. Across Ukraine, across Europe and across the globe," U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Linda Thomas-Greenfield told the Security Council on Monday night.
In Washington, where the cause of Ukrainian sovereignty has attracted rare bipartisan support, a group of lawmakers who attended last week's critical Munich Security Conference vowed unity and resolve in opposing "Russian aggression."
"No matter what happens in the coming days, we must assure that the dictator Putin and his corrupt oligarchs pay a devastating price for their decisions,” the group said in a statement.
The top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas, and the ranking Republican of the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Mike D. Rogers of Alabama, urged Biden to immediately take stronger action: "[N]ow is not the time for symbolic pinpricks that will serve only to embolden Putin and endanger our friends in Ukraine. Now is the time for President Biden to impose sanctions that strike at the heart of the Russian economy," they said in a statement Monday evening condemning Putin's latest actions.
The independence declaration could have massive consequences: The separatists claim all the Donbas region as territory for their republics. But they control only part of it. If they intend to take the full territory with Russian help, it would lead to full-on clashes between Ukrainian and Russian troops, setting the stage for an escalation sure to embroil Western nations.
Putin's announcement recognizing the independence of the republics followed Russia’s assertion that Ukrainian army units had breached its border Monday, another in a series of claims the West fears will provide Russia with a supposed justification for an invasion of its neighbor. It was not clear how far Russian forces would push into Ukraine — whether they would carve out more of the eastern separatist region or set their sights on the capital, Kyiv, and the rest of the nation.
Putin's new strategy would mean the end of the Minsk agreements, the much-reviled accords — signed after Russia-backed separatist forces surrounded several thousand Ukrainian soldiers — that have maintained a threadbare cease-fire in the Donbas since 2015 after Moscow seized Crimea. But more immediately, it could also provide the cover for Moscow to begin its blitz into Ukraine.
Russia’s forces seem poised for just such a moment. Some 150,000 troops and a large-scale arsenal of Russia's top land, air and sea materiel is now assembled on Ukraine’s borders. Moscow has repeatedly denied it has plans for an invasion but has warned that Western failure to engage with its security demands, including a pledge never to allow Ukraine to join NATO, would trigger a “military-technical response." The Kremlin has not elaborated on what that would mean.
Accelerating shuttle diplomacy — chiefly from French President Emmanuel Macron, engaging as broker with President Biden and Putin — has failed to stop what appears to be an inevitable path to war.
The Russian leader has previously accused the Ukrainian government of pursuing "genocide" in Donetsk and Luhansk, the vast majority of whose populations are ethnic Russians. The U.S. and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization have accused Moscow of planning so-called false flag operations in the area to justify an incursion.
On Monday, Russia’s military said it killed five saboteurs crossing into its territory from Ukraine and destroyed two Ukrainian army combat vehicles. But the Ukrainian military dismissed those claims, which were reported by Russian state news agencies, as “completely fake.”
Since 2014, fighting between Kyiv's forces and the Russia-backed secessionists has killed more than 14,000 people. A cease-fire has been breached multiple times by both sides. In recent weeks, as Russian troops massed near Ukraine's borders, Russia-aligned media and digital actors have churned out constant stories of Ukrainian atrocities against ethnic Russians as part of a disinformation campaign.
White House national security advisor Jake Sullivan said on NBC's “Today” show Monday: "This will not simply be some conventional war between two armies. It will be a war waged by Russia on the Ukrainian people to repress them, to crush them, to harm them. We believe the world must mobilize to counter this kind of Russian aggression should those tanks roll across the border."
Sullivan said Biden remained open to a summit with Putin — which Macron has tried to broker — but downplayed the likelihood that one would occur.
The Russian army’s Southern Military District — which operates in areas neighboring Ukraine — said Monday that troops and border guards had prevented an incursion of what it called a “sabotage and reconnaissance group” coming in from Ukraine into Russian territory.
A spokesman for the Ukrainian military's Joint Forces Operation rejected the Russian allegations, saying that “all information about a possible incursion by a reconnaissance group is false. We haven’t done any assault operations. It’s completely fake.”
In Moscow, the deputy chairman of the security council, Dmitry Medvedev, told Putin that if Russia went ahead and recognized Donetsk and Luhansk as independent republics, it would face "unprecedented pressure" internationally but that there was no choice. He said Russia's previous recognition of the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia had been a lesson to the West that Russia could not be ignored, according to a translation of Medvedev's comments by the Al Jazeera news channel.
Putin said the use of Ukraine "as an instrument of confrontation with our country poses a serious, very big threat to us." Moscow's priority, he said, was "not confrontation, but security."
Wilkinson reported from Washington. Times staff writers Erin B. Logan, Jennifer Haberkorn, Eli Stokols and Evan Halper in Washington and Henry Chu in London contributed to this report.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.