Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered troops into two breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine after recognizing their independence Monday, threatening a major escalation following months of military buildup and warnings from the West that the Kremlin was trying to create a pretext to invade its neighbor.
Moscow drew swift international condemnation.
Washington and its allies vowed sanctions in response to Russia’s actions, with Germany moving to halt the crucial Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline to deliver Russian natural gas to Europe.
Chancellor Olaf Scholz said he would halt the certification process of the project, a signal that Moscow may face a hard-hitting response as the West moves to not only punish the move in eastern Ukraine but ward off any further incursion.
For weeks Ukraine’s leaders have urged calm in the face of dire warnings from the United States and its allies that an invasion was imminent. But in the wake of Putin’s move, some were preparing for the worst.
Kyiv’s mayor, Vitali Klitschko, said in a video message Tuesday that Russia had declared war on its neighbor.
“From the actions of the Russian authorities, we see that Russia has in fact declared war on Ukraine. There are masses of Russian troops, who were coming there all night,” he said, referring to the two Moscow-backed separatist areas in the country’s east.
Ukraine’s defense minister, Oleksii Reznikov, said in a message to the country’s army Tuesday: “There are difficult challenges ahead. There will be losses. We will have to go through pain, overcome fear and despair.”
Still, he urged his soldiers and generals to keep calm.
Putin’s actions late Monday came after days of escalation in the ongoing conflict between Kyiv’s forces and Russian-backed separatists in Ukraine’s east.
The Russian decrees acknowledging their independence framed the troops as “peacekeepers,” which U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas Greenfield dismissed as “nonsense.”
Russian officials haven’t yet acknowledged any deployments to the rebel-controlled regions, but officials there and beyond suggested troops had already moved in.
European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said Tuesday that “Russian troops have entered in Donbas.” He added, “I wouldn’t say that’s a fully fledged invasion, but Russian troops are on Ukrainian soil.”
Vladislav Brig, a member of the separatist local council in Donetsk, told reporters that the Russian troops had taken up positions in the region’s north and west, The Associated Press reported.
A key question now is whether Russia recognizes the breakaway regions’ independence within their existing borders or the borders they first proclaimed eight years ago, which would extend into far broader territory currently controlled by Ukraine.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov gave conflicting answers on the issue in his daily briefing Tuesday.