Tuesday, February 22, 2022

Putin Orders Deployment of Troops to Breakaway Regions in Ukraine

By Ann M. Simmons in Moscow, Yaroslav Trofimov in Kyiv, Ukraine, and Matthew Luxmoore in London | The Wall Street Journal 

Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered Russian troops into two breakaway regions of Ukraine after recognizing their independence, a move that threatened to scuttle negotiations with the West over the future security of Eastern Europe.

His two decrees were published on the Russian government’s legal portal after a televised address late Monday in which Mr. Putin laid out grievances about the West’s support of Ukraine after the collapse of the Soviet Union and Western arms deliveries to Kyiv against the backdrop of a massive Russian troop buildup near its borders.

A senior Biden administration official said that in response, the U.S. will impose new sanctions on Russia by Tuesday.

Mr. Putin said the unspecified number of Russian forces would act in a peacekeeping role once Russia has signed mutual assistance with the two regions.

“The situation in Donbas is becoming critical,” Mr. Putin said of the eastern area of Ukraine, where the two breakaway regions are located. “Ukraine is not just a neighbor. It is an inherent part of our own history, culture and spiritual space,” he said.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky gathered his national security and defense council for a permanent meeting following Mr. Putin’s speech and was preparing a response, the council’s head said. Mr. Zelensky discussed the crisis with President Biden and U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

And in a late night speech to the nation, Mr. Zelensky said Russia’s latest actions amounted to a breach of Ukrainian sovereignty, but he continued to urge calm in the face of the threat.

“Truth is on our side. We will never hide the truth from you,” Mr. Zelensky said. “As soon as we see a change in the situation, as soon as we see an increase in risk, you will know all about it. There is currently no reason for chaotic actions.”

Condemnation from the international community was swift.

The White House said that Mr. Biden “strongly condemned” Mr. Putin’s decision to recognize two breakaway regions of Ukraine and said it planned to issue sanctions. Mr. Biden also “reiterated that the United States would respond swiftly and decisively, in lockstep with its Allies and partners, to further Russian aggression against Ukraine.”

Mr. Biden also spoke with French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz. The White House said the leaders condemned Mr. Putin’s announcement and discussed next steps.

Mr. Biden issued an executive order that “will prohibit new investment, trade, and financing by U.S. persons’’ in the breakaway areas.

Monday’s order bans new investment and financing in the separatist regions and U.S. trade with the areas. Investors or company executives that do business with the breakaway areas will have their U.S. assets blocked.

Press secretary Jen Psaki said the White House would also announce additional measures. She said those moves would be in addition to economic measures the U.S. has been preparing with allies.

A senior administration official said Washington will impose new sanctions by Tuesday.

“This wasn’t just a speech about Russia’s security, it was an attack on the very idea of a sovereign and independent Ukraine,” the senior Biden administration official said. “[Mr. Putin] made clear that he views the claim historically as part of Russia, and he made a number of false claims about Ukraine’s intention that seems designed to excuse possible military action.”

President Vladimir Putin announced Monday evening that Russia would recognize the independence of two Moscow-backed breakaway regions in Ukraine, a move Western officials believe could be used to justify an incursion into the territories. Photo: Alexei Nikolsky/Sputnik/Kremlin Pool/AP

The White House on Sunday said that Mr. Biden was prepared to meet with Mr. Putin “in principle,” if Moscow refrained from further invading Ukraine. The senior official said that the White House can’t commit to a meeting “that has a predicate that Russia won’t take military action when it looks as imminently like it will.”

The official added that following Mr. Putin’s speech Monday, the administration received information that Russian troops deployed into the Donetsk and Luhansk regions “for so-called peacekeeping functions,” adding that U.S. officials are still assessing the situation.

“We are going to respond to any actions Russia takes in a way that we believe is appropriate to the action. There will be additional steps taken tomorrow, likely sanctions—if Russia takes further action,” the official said Monday. Russian forces annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014.

Following Mr. Putin’s action, the remaining U.S. diplomats currently stationed in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv have been cleared to leave by land to Poland. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken cited security reasons for the move and added, “Our personnel will regularly return to continue their diplomatic work in Ukraine and provide emergency consular services,” he said. U.S. military personnel didn’t participate in the evacuation, defense officials said.

News of Mr. Putin’s decision to recognize the self-proclaimed republics of Donetsk and Luhansk, which is expected to include financial assistance and help with infrastructure development and security, was greeted with cheers on the streets of the breakaway territories. Russian state media showed people waving Russian flags, embracing and hoisting bottles of champagne.

The celebrations came as Ukraine asked the U.N. Security Council for an urgent meeting to tackle the threat of a Russian invasion.

Ukraine’s foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, said he made the request Monday after a substantial escalation in military activity between Russian-backed forces and Kyiv government troops.

The United Nations Security Council, whose rotating presidency is held by Russia this month, met Monday night on the Ukraine crisis.

Deciding to recognize the two territories in Donbas would likely grant the Kremlin greater sway over these regions, already proxies of Moscow, and hand Mr. Putin an additional trump card in negotiations in his current standoff with the West.

Russia’s Federation Council, the upper house of the Russian parliament, will consider the move to recognize the breakaway regions at a closed meeting Tuesday, the Russian state news agency RIA Novosti reported, a necessary move to formalize the decrees under Russian law.

In a statement Monday evening, the European Union’s top officials called the step by Mr. Putin “a blatant violation of international law.”

They said the EU “will react with sanctions against those involved in this illegal act.” No further details were provided.

The French leader, Mr. Macron, who holds the EU’s rotating presidency, called on Europe to respond with targeted sanctions.

“This is clearly a unilateral violation of Russia’s international commitments and an attack on Ukraine’s sovereignty,” Mr. Macron’s office said.

Mr. Macron also called for an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council.

Tensions have been steadily rising across the region, despite signs that diplomatic initiatives had been making tentative progress.

Mr. Blinken has proposed a meeting with Sergei Lavrov, his Russian counterpart, this week in Europe that could lead to a summit between Messrs. Biden and Putin.

But on Monday, Mr. Putin appeared to make the case for invading Russia’s smaller neighbor, describing Ukraine as a tool being used by the West for confrontation with Russia that “poses a very large threat” to the country, he said.

Sitting behind a large desk flanked by the flag of the Russian Federation and the Presidential Standard, his fingers pressed into the edge of the tabletop, Mr. Putin spoke directly into the camera to deliver a lengthy and at times rambling monologue. He shrugged and sometimes appeared irritated as he explained his interpretation of the intertwined history of Russia and Ukraine.

He questioned the territorial legitimacy of the former Soviet Republic, saying that “modern Ukraine was entirely created by communist Russia” in a process that “began immediately after the 1917 revolution.”

“Ukraine, in fact, has never had a stable tradition of its true statehood,” he said.

Mr. Putin also accused Ukraine of taking a hostile stance toward Russian-controlled areas of Donbas and said the government in Kyiv wasn’t willing to implement the Minsk cease-fire agreement signed after Ukrainian forces were routed in Donbas in 2015. Ukraine has rejected Moscow’s interpretation of the deal, which it says provides Russia’s proxies in the region a veto over any attempt to align Ukraine more closely with the West.

The Russian leader also repeated his objections to Ukraine being allowed to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, saying that Kyiv would use it as an opportunity to forcibly try to retake the Crimean Peninsula, which Moscow annexed in 2014.

“If Russia faces such a threat as the admission of Ukraine to NATO, then the threats to our country will increase,” he said.

Biden administration officials said that Mr. Putin’s address “was a speech to the Russian people to justify a war.”

Markets were unsettled by the latest developments.

Russian stocks, the ruble and European shares fell, while oil prices rose, as investors grew nervous at signs of escalation between Moscow and the West.

U.S. stock markets were closed on Monday. The MOEX, Russia’s benchmark stock index, dropped 10.5%, which was the largest daily percentage decline since March 2014 during Russia’s invasion of Crimea.

Brent crude, the international oil benchmark, rose 1.4% to $94.84 a barrel.

On Monday, Russia’s military said it destroyed two Ukrainian armored vehicles and killed five Ukrainian personnel inside Russian territory Monday, but offered no evidence of the alleged incursion, as Ukrainian and Western leaders warned Moscow was seeking pretexts to mount an attack.

Ukrainian military spokesman Lt. Col. Pavlo Kovalchuk said no such incident occurred. “This whole false claim of a Ukrainian sabotage and reconnaissance team being caught somewhere near the Russian border is completely false,” he said.

Kyiv says it isn’t carrying out any offensive operations now that some 190,000 Russian troops have massed on Ukraine’s borders and that its forces have been holding back on returning fire to avoid giving Moscow any excuse for an invasion.

“Russia, stop your fake-producing factory now,” Mr. Kuleba, the Ukrainian foreign minister, tweeted on Monday.

Western intelligence officials said Russian forces have continued to build along Ukraine’s borders in the past 72 hours, including the deployment of its S-400 air-defense systems. They said there are now about 100 battalion tactical groups in the area of operations, with more on the way. Around two-thirds of the units are within 31 miles of the border with Ukraine and primed to make an offensive strike. One official described it as “a move from being postured for military operations to being poised for military operations,” with indications pointing to a possible large-scale invasion.

The official said it is believed that the final order to invade hasn’t been given and a window for de-escalation remains.

Also on Monday, a Russian-installed leader of a breakaway part of eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region asserted—also without offering evidence—that Kyiv had launched an offensive and said he would welcome financial and military assistance from Moscow.

Shelling all along the cease-fire line separating Ukrainian-controlled parts of Donbas from those held by Russian-installed administrations has escalated in recent days amid U.S. warnings of an imminent Russian invasion. On Monday, a major power station in the Ukrainian-controlled town of Shchastia stopped operations because of damage sustained from Russian artillery, according to local officials.

While Russia has aided and armed Donetsk and Luhansk since the Donbas conflict erupted in 2014, it has long insisted that its own armed forces aren’t directly involved in the fighting—which has claimed roughly 14,000 lives—an assertion ridiculed by Kyiv and the West.

Some 700,000 Donbas residents hold Russian passports and around one million applied for passports in recent days, Russian officials said. Mr. Putin has long put the defense of Russian citizens and Russian speakers at the heart of his assertive policies toward former Soviet neighbors. When Russia invaded the Caucasus country of Georgia in 2008, for example, it said it was defending its citizens from an attack by Georgia’s army.

If Moscow openly enters the fighting in Donbas, its overwhelming advantage in aviation and missiles could allow its forces to punch through Ukrainian defenses and potentially encircle some of the Ukrainian army’s best fighting units.

“Military assistance is needed, in different directions,” Eduard Basurin, one of the leaders of the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic, said on Russian TV on Monday.

The U.S. has told the U.N. that it has reliable information that the Kremlin plans to hunt down Ukrainians who oppose a Russian attack if Mr. Putin decides to invade the country.

“We have credible information that indicates Russian forces are creating lists of identified Ukrainians to be killed or sent to camps following a military occupation,” Bathsheba Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. office and other international organizations in Geneva wrote a top U.N. human rights official. “Russian forces will likely use lethal measures to disperse peaceful protests or otherwise counter peaceful exercises of perceived resistance from civilian populations.”

Dissidents from Belarus and Russia who have sought refuge in Ukraine would also likely be targeted, as would journalists, anticorruption activists, religious and ethnic minorities and LGBTQ individuals, Ms. Crocker wrote.

The letter, which was first reported by the Washington Post, was sent to Michelle Bachelet, the U.N.’s high commissioner for human rights.

Russian-installed authorities in Donetsk said that several civilians and troops were killed and injured by Ukrainian fire Sunday, and released footage of a severed leg of what they said was a Ukrainian saboteur who had an accident while trying to plant a bomb.

They also said Ukrainian forces tried Monday morning to break through front lines along the Azov Sea coast, heading toward the Russian border. Ukraine dismissed these allegations as a disinformation campaign.

Russia on Monday also said a Ukrainian shell hit a border outpost in its southern Rostov region, destroying the building. Nobody was hurt in the incident, according to Moscow.

Ukraine said its forces were far from that area, which abuts a part of Donbas controlled by Russia, and didn’t fire in that direction.

“They are in search of a casus belli,” said Ukraine’s national security adviser, Oleksii Danilov. “But the desire of the Russian federation to provoke us to begin active operations will fail.”

Lt. Col. Kovalchuk said Russian-backed forces were deliberately destroying civilian infrastructure on their own territory to escalate hostilities.

“Our positions and the Russian border are separated by the temporarily occupied territories, and our artillery is currently drawn back to the rear of our positions,” he said. “It would be absolutely impossible for us to shoot over the temporarily occupied territories to shoot all the way to Rostov.”