- President Vladimir Putin of Russia on Monday ordered troops into eastern Ukraine.
- He gave the command in decrees recognizing the regions of Luhansk and Donetsk as independent.
- US officials have long warned that Putin was seeking a pretext to invade Ukraine.
President Vladimir Putin of Russia ordered troops into eastern Ukraine on Monday, escalating the conflict there.
Putin signed a presidential decree mandating a “peacekeeping” operation in Donetsk and Luhansk, two separatist territories that are loyal to Moscow. The order was also reported by The New York Times.
It came after Putin decided to recognise the regions as independent states rather than parts of Ukraine, dealing a major blow to the Minsk accords — ceasefire agreements meant to end fighting in eastern Ukraine (the Donbas). The recognition attracted instant condemnation from the US, UK, and EU, with promises of sanctions. The international community continues to recognize the Donbas, including Donetsk and Luhansk, as Ukrainian territory.
—Secretary Antony Blinken (@SecBlinken) February 21, 2022
—Liz Truss (@trussliz) February 21, 2022
—Ursula von der Leyen (@vonderleyen) February 21, 2022
The details of the activities Putin had in mind for the troops were not immediately clear.
US officials have long said they believed Putin is following a playbook designed to bring about a full-scale invasion.
Events in the region moved quickly on Monday.
Russia earlier that day accused Ukraine of sending troops into its territory via Donetsk, an assertion given without independent evidence that seemed to fulfill US warnings of a “false flag” campaign to create a pretext for war. Putin last baselessly suggested genocide was happening week against ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine.
For the past months, Russia has been building up forces around Ukraine, many of which are near Donetsk and Luhansk. There are also units further along the borders of Ukraine, along its eastern border, to its north — both in Russia and Belarus — and also in occupied Crimea to the south.
US officials estimated that as many as 190,000 troops were stationed there and poised to attack as of late February.
Putin, who has ruled over Russia for 20 years, has a long history of aggression toward Ukraine.
Russia invaded Ukraine and annexed Crimea in 2014. Ukraine has also been fighting a war against Kremlin-backed separatist forces in the Donbas region since 2014. The conflict has claimed over 13,000 lives.
Russia has repeatedly claimed it doesn’t have a military presence in the Donbas, despite evidence to the contrary.
As Russia has gathered tens of thousands of troops along Ukraine’s border in recent months, the Kremlin has blamed the contentious dynamic in the region on NATO. Along these lines, Russia has made demands for binding security guarantees from the West — including permanently barring Ukraine and Georgia from the alliance. But NATO and the US have repeatedly said that this demand is a non-starter while offering to negotiate on other issues such as missile deployments and military exercises.
Experts say Putin’s bellicose posture toward Ukraine is part of his broader goal of restoring the level of power and authority Russia enjoyed in the region during the Soviet era. The Russian president has repeatedly suggested Ukraine is not a real country, while stating that Ukrainians and Russians are “one people.” Continuing to push such rhetoric during an incendiary speech on Monday, Putin said, “Modern Ukraine was completely created by Russia.”
“Listening to Putin’s rant makes absolutely plain that his problem was never with NATO…It was always about the collapse of the USSR and the independence of Ukraine,” Ivo Daalder, a former US ambassador to NATO, said in a tweet reacting to the address.
In short, Putin appears determined to see Ukraine firmly under Russian control.
The US has warned Russia it will face swift and severe economic sanctions if it launches a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. But the Biden administration has ruled out sending in troops to defend Ukraine, given it’s not a NATO member.
As of Monday evening, it remained unclear whether the Biden administration viewed the deployment of Russian “peacekeepers” to the Donbas as a new invasion that would trigger the type of major sanctions it’s warned Russia about.