December 7, 2022

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Kyiv braces for conflict, West sanctions Russia after Putin orders troops into eastern Ukraine

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Ukraine braced for a potential conflict with Russia and the West moved to impose sanctions on Moscow on Tuesday after Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered troops into two breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine.

Putin issued the order after recognizing the independence of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions Monday, moves that threatened 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’s movement of troops drew swift international condemnation, with the U.S. calling the move an “invasion,” two Biden administration officials said. Washington and its allies vowed sanctions would follow, with Germany halting the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline to deliver Russian natural gas to Europe over what Chancellor Olaf Scholz called a “serious break of international law.”

President Joe Biden planned to address the crisis in public remarks Tuesday afternoon as a diplomatic solution to the crisis appeared fleeting. A planned meeting Thursday between Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov was “in real jeopardy,” a senior Biden administration said.

Ukrainian President Volodymy Zelenskyy said Tuesday he would consider breaking diplomatic ties with Russia, and Kyiv recalled its ambassador in Moscow after the move to send in Russian troops.

Meanwhile, the Russian parliament’s upper chamber, the Federation Council, said it approved a request from Putin on Tuesday evening to use armed forces outside Russia’s territory. Speaking to reporters afterward, Putin announced that Russia recognized the 2014 borders of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, which were larger than the current boundaries and include the port of Mariupol. Vast swaths of those regions are held by the Ukrainian military, raising concerns about armed conflict breaking out as Russian troops move in.

Russian-backed separatists in Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk regions, collectively known as the Donbas, broke away from Kyiv in 2014 and proclaimed themselves independent “people’s republics.” Since then, they have been fighting Ukrainian forces in a prolonged conflict that has claimed thousands of lives and remains unresolved. Although Russia has denied its military presence in the region, it’s been accused of propping up the separatists with weapons and financial support.

In his remarks Tuesday, Putin said that the Minsk agreement to end the war in the Donbas region no longer existed and blamed Ukraine for its demise. Asked about the possible use of Russian forces in the Donbas, the Russian president said his country will carry out its obligations if necessary, Reuters reported.

‘Difficult challenges ahead’

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.

Ukraine’s defense minister, Oleksii Reznikov, told the country’s army Tuesday to expect “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.

Meanwhile, Kyiv’s mayor, Vitali Klitschko, said in a video message 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.

Still, residents in the capital went about their usual business Tuesday. Women sold tulips on the side of the road in the city’s center, while metro trains were packed at the start of a workday as the city enjoyed warm wintry weather.

On his way to work Tuesday, Deleaver Sefershaev, a videographer from Russian-annexed Crimea who now lives in Kyiv, told NBC News that Russia’s recognition of the breakaway regions may reduce Moscow’s leverage and make war more likely. Still, he said he was not afraid.

“I’m going to work, I’ll do my job, I’ll live calmly further,” Sefershaev, 28, said. “The key here is to remain calm and not panic,” he added.

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.

Putin’s decision to deploy troops came after weeks of rising tensions as Russia massed some 150,000 troops around Ukraine’s borders and Washington warned that Moscow was ready to invade at any moment.

Throughout the crisis, Ukrainian officials have preached calm and told their compatriots that the possibility of an invasion was low, but that they were ready to face any threat.

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