Russian leader Vladimir Putin extended official recognition to two breakaway republics in Ukraine’s far-eastern Donbas region in remarks delivered Monday night in Moscow, and followed the speech by signing an order to deploy the Russian military to the contested area.
“They want to defend their basic rights, to live on their land, to speak their native language, to preserve their traditions and their culture,” the Russian leader said. Putin blamed Ukraine for putting citizens of the region in danger, insisting that “Russia did everything it could to keep the territorial integrity of Ukraine.” But citing the suffering of people in the region that he referred to as a “genocide,” Putin said: “I deem it necessary to make a decision that should have been made a long time ago, to immediately recognize the independence and sovereignty” of the Donetsk People’s Republic and the Luhansk People’s Republic.
The official recognition of the separatist territories comes as the world anticipates a Russian military assault on Ukraine that President Biden has described as imminent, even as the United States says it continues to pursue a diplomatic resolution. The blessing of the breakaway regions is already being used as a pretext to move weapons and troops into Ukrainian territory. Indeed, Putin has reportedly directed Russian forces to conduct “peacekeeping functions” in these breakaway areas.
At the request of Ukraine, the United Nations Security council held an emergency meeting Monday night to urge Russia to end hostilities in the region. Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, blasted Putin’s claim that Russian forces were acting in peacekeeping roles as “nonsense,” stating the U.S. is prepared to address Russia’s “violation of international law.”
“Russia’s clear attack on Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity is unprovoked,” she said. “We must meet the moment and we must not look away. History tells us that looking the other way in the face of such hostility will be a far more costly path.”
Meanwhile, on Tuesday morning, Ukraine’s Joint Forces Operation announced two Ukrainian soldiers were killed during overnight shelling operations at the frontline.
This border region has long been a source of conflict between Moscow and Kyiv. But the present crisis dates to the 2014 “Maidan revolution” in which Ukraine overthrew its Russian-backed president. Putin decried the removal of his ally as a “coup” and Russia quickly moved to invade and annex Crimea.
At the same time, pro-Russian separatists in the Donbas proclaimed a pair of breakaway governments, the Donetsk People’s Republic and the Luhansk People’s Republic. In practice, these separatists have controlled only a fraction of the territory they claim. And the region has been marred by bloodshed in the years since, with as many as 14,000 people killed a in a long-simmering civil war.
Previously, these governments had not been recognized either by Kyiv or Moscow, although Russia has been extending passports to hundreds of thousands of people in the region, effectively colonizing Donbas. The open question now is whether the incoming Russian military forces will remain in areas under control by the separatists, where they are likely to be welcomed, or fight to overtake Donbas territory defended by the Ukrainian military.
In his wide-ranging speech, Putin made clear that Russia continues to consider Ukraine part of its sphere of influence. Putin began his remarks referring to Ukraine “not just a neighbor” but “an inherent part of our history,” insisting that Russia has “blood and family ties” with its European neighbor.
Putin insisted “the modern Ukraine was completely created by Russia” after the 1917 Bolshevik revolution, calling Vladimir Lenin the “architect” of the country, while highlighting that its borders were frequently shifted by Soviet-era leaders. And Putin decried the corruption of oligarchs in Ukraine, which he tied to the Maidan revolution. “Maidan didn’t bring Ukraine closer to democracy,” the Russian authoritarian said, instead sparking civil war.
Putin rehearsed longstanding grievances against the U.S. and Europe, decrying “five waves” of expansion by the Western security alliance NATO that have brought it closer and closer to Russia, including positioning what he denounced as “strike” weapons within reach of Russian territory. The Russian leader decried the West and the U.S. in particular for “pumping Ukraine with weapons,” and Ukraine for conducting military drills with NATO.
Putin warned that the prospect of Ukraine — as a part of NATO — being used as a staging ground for a potential attack on Russia is an affront to Russian history and as an intolerable threat. “That’s like having a knife against our throat,” he said. “The only goal they have is to contain the development of Russia,” Putin said of Western powers, “Only because we exist.”
“Russia has every right to take countermeasures to enhance our security,” Putin insisted. “And that’s how we plan to act.”
He closed with a dark warning for Ukraine’s government to “stop hostilities immediately, otherwise all the responsibility for the possible continuation of the bloodbath will be on the conscience of the regime that is ruling in Kyiv.”
The White House reacted swiftly to Putin’s declaration. “We have anticipated a move like this from Russia and are ready to respond immediately,” Press Secretary Jen Psaki said in a statement. “President Biden will soon issue an Executive Order that will prohibit new investment, trade, and financing by U.S. persons to, from, or in the so-called DNR and LNR regions of Ukraine.” Psaki continued that the executive order would “also provide authority to impose sanctions on any person determined to operate in those areas of Ukraine.” The specifics of the sanctions are expected to be announced Tuesday.
In a statement Monday night, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken confirmed State Department personnel previously evacuated to the city of Lviv from Kyiv had been relocated to Poland and would “regularly return” to Ukraine to “provide emergency consular services.”
“The United States’ commitment to Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity in the face of Russia’s aggression is unwavering,” Blinken said, adding: “Our commitment to Ukraine transcends any one location.” Blinken also spoke by phone with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba to reaffirm what the State Department called “unwavering” support for the country.
A bipartisan U.S. congressional delegation led by senators Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D.-R.I.) also condemned Putin’s move and pledged emergency legislation to aide Ukraine. “It now appears increasingly likely that Russian forces will initiate hostilities against a free and peaceful Ukraine,” the delegation wrote. “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.”
Hawks within the Republican party were predictably blunt, finding no nuance in Putin sending his military to separatist areas. Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming declared that “Russia has invaded Ukraine” and called for “crippling sanctions now.”
Russia has invaded Ukraine. The Biden Administration and our allies must impose full set of crippling sanctions now.
— Rep. Liz Cheney (@RepLizCheney) February 21, 2022
This is a developing story and will be updated.