Western allies impose massive sanctions

KYIV — Russia faced a fierce global diplomatic and economic backlash on Tuesday after President Vladimir Putin ordered his forces into Ukraine to secure two breakaway regions.

A Ukrainian serviceman walks along a trench at a position on the front line with Russian-backed separatists near the settlement of Troitske in the Lugansk region on February 22, 2022, a day after Russia recognized the breakaway republics in eastern Ukraine and ordered the Russian military to send troops there as “peacekeepers”. AFP

Germany announced it was suspending certification of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia and said the European Union would adopt “robust and massive” economic sanctions.

Kiev recalled its top diplomat from Moscow as President Volodymyr Zelensky warned that Putin’s recognition of breakaway regions heralded “new military aggression” against Ukraine.

Putin’s move – which brought tens of thousands of Russian troops to Ukraine’s borders and amid warnings of an all-out invasion – was swiftly and widely condemned by Kiev’s allies in the West.

“We strongly condemn all military and hybrid actions against Ukraine,” Estonian President Alar Karis said after visiting Kyiv in solidarity with Zelensky.

“Indeed, this is a defining moment in European history. President Putin will answer future generations for his violent acts,” he promised.

“Robust and massive”

But in some capitals there has been a debate over whether sending troops into an area already controlled by Russian-backed rebels amounts to an all-out invasion that would justify the imposition of the harshest sanctions.

In a statement released during a visit to Washington, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said he was working with Kyiv’s friends “to impose tough sanctions against the Russian Federation.”

In Moscow, Russia’s lower house of parliament, the Duma, voted to approve Putin’s friendship agreements with the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) and Lugansk People’s Republic (LNR).

This will give Putin legal cover for deploying forces in rebel-held territories, but will not shield Moscow from the diplomatic consequences of its actions.

Zelensky said he would decide immediately after his talks with Karis whether or not to cut diplomatic relations with Moscow.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said if Kyiv did, it would be “an extremely undesirable scenario that would make everything even more difficult.”

And German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said that when EU foreign ministers meet in Paris later today, he was confident they would pass a huge package of economic sanctions – on top of the halted pipeline.

The United States and Britain were also expected to announce sanctions within hours, as European and Russian stocks tumbled and oil prices soared on news of the recognition.

Meanwhile, in the frontline town of Shchastya, shellfire rang out around a power plant as fearful residents awaited the Russian deployment.

A shell hit the roof of Valentyna Shmatkova’s apartment building, 59, during the night, smashing all the windows in her two-room apartment.

“We took the war underground,” she said, referring to the 2014 fighting that saw the region break away from Ukraine.

“But we did not expect this. We never thought that Ukraine and Russia would not get along.

When asked what she thought of Putin’s decision to recognize the republics, Shmatkova laughed: “I have no idea what’s going on, we have no light, no electricity , nothing!”

Social media posts suggested Russian troops were heading towards Donetsk and Lugansk after Putin issued decrees ordering them to take on “peacekeeping” duties in the territories.

Western officials have yet to describe Putin’s moves as an invasion, but US officials say there is a 150,000-strong Russian force ready to launch an all-out assault.

“Scandalous and false statements”

Washington took its first steps in the early hours of Tuesday, barring Americans from financial transactions with separatist territories, and said new sanctions would be announced on Tuesday.

But it was unclear how far the West would go, having repeatedly warned of sanctions that would cause serious damage to the Russian economy in the event of an invasion.

Russian troops were already known to be inside the two rebel regions and the order to deploy more is unlikely to be enough for the West to trigger its worst response.

Putin announced his recognition of the territories, which broke away from Kyiv’s control in 2014, during a day of political theater in Moscow.

After a dramatic televised meeting with his top government, military and security officials, Putin addressed the Russian people in a 65-minute speech from his Kremlin office.

In the often angry speech, Putin denounced Ukraine as a failed state and a “puppet” of the West, accusing Kiev of plotting a “blitzkrieg” to retake breakaway regions.

The decision to recognize them, Putin said, was “a long overdue decision”.

He was later shown signing “friendship” agreements with rebel leaders that allowed for the official deployment of Russian forces to “keep the peace” and the sharing of military bases and border protection.

Hours later, the UN Security Council held an emergency meeting, during which US Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield called “absurd” Putin’s reference to troops as ” peacekeepers”.

“We know what they really are,” Thomas-Greenfield said, saying Putin’s speech amounted to a “series of outrageous misrepresentations” aimed at “creating a pretext for war.”

Russia’s UN ambassador Vasily Nebenzya told the meeting that Moscow was still open to a diplomatic solution.

“Allowing further bloodshed in Donbass is something we have no intention of doing,” he added, referring to the region encompassing Donetsk and Lugansk.

Moscow said Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was still ready to meet with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken as scheduled in Geneva on Thursday.

The fighting appeared to have eased overnight Tuesday, with the Ukrainian military saying there were only three ceasefire violations between midnight and 7 a.m.

As of Monday, there had been 84 violations, with two soldiers killed and 18 injured.

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