Western allies quickly moved Tuesday to punish Russia with economic sanctions after President Vladimir Putin recognized the Russian-occupied regions of Donetsk and Luhansk in eastern Ukraine as independent states and sent what he described as "peacekeeping forces" over the Ukrainian border.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz halted authorization for Nord Stream 2, the completed but not yet operational natural gas pipeline under the Baltic Sea from Russia to Germany, at least temporarily cutting potential fuel deliveries to Germany but also depriving Moscow of revenue from the pipeline.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson told Parliament he had sanctioned five Russian banks and three "high net worth" executives, freezing their assets in Britain and cutting off financial transactions with them.
"This is the first tranche, the first barrage, of what we are prepared to do," Johnson said.
Russian lawmakers on Tuesday gave Putin permission to use military force outside the country, possibly presaging a broader attack on Ukraine
European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said that "Russian troops are on Ukrainian soil" in Donetsk and Luhansk but that it was not a "fully fledged invasion."
In Washington, however, the White House on Tuesday began referring to Russian troop deployments in eastern Ukraine as an "invasion" after initially hesitating to use the term. President Joe Biden has said that Russian troops crossing into Ukraine would constitute an invasion and would result in the U.S. levying severe sanctions against Moscow.
"We think this is, yes, the beginning of an invasion, Russia's latest invasion into Ukraine," said Jon Finer, principal deputy national security adviser. "An invasion is an invasion, and that is what is underway."
In a phone briefing with reporters late Monday, a senior U.S. official said further U.S. sanctions beyond those imposed quickly on Luhansk and Donetsk after Putin declared their independence would "hold Russia accountable for this clear violation of international law and Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity, as well as of Russia's own international commitments."
The official declined to give specifics of what the U.S. is planning to impose. France and other Western allies in Europe are also expected to impose their own sanctions.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy had called Tuesday for immediate sanctions, including halting of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, without waiting for further Russian aggression.
For weeks, the U.S. and European allies have warned of swift and severe consequences for Russia if it launched an invasion of Ukraine, a possibility viewed with growing concern as Russia deployed 150,000 troops and military equipment along its border with Ukraine and in Belarus, a Russian ally to the north of Ukraine.
Russian tanks entered eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region overnight, Western diplomats and residents in Donetsk confirmed to VOA. It was unclear if their presence constituted significant movement of Russian forces or instead movement of Russian-backed militias already in eastern Ukraine.
U.S. President Joe Biden issued an initial set of sanctions Monday in response to Putin’s recognition of the breakaway regions and his order to deploy what he called Russian peacekeeping forces.
A senior Biden administration official told reporters that the first round of sanctions was specifically tied to those actions and did not represent the “swift and severe economic measures we have been preparing in coordination with allies and partners should Russia further invade Ukraine.”
Biden’s order prohibits new investment, trade and financing by Americans in those areas. “This wasn’t a speech just about Russia’s security,” a senior administration official said. “It was an attack on the very idea of a sovereign and independent Ukraine. He (Putin) made clear that he views Ukraine historically as part of Russia. And he made a number of false claims about Ukraine contention that seemed designed to excuse possible military action. This was a speech to the Russian people to justify war.”
The official would not say whether plans were still on for Secretary of State Antony Blinken to meet with his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, later this week. That meeting was intended to set the scene for a possible summit between Putin and Biden, with the United States saying both were predicated on Russia not invading Ukraine.
“We’ll continue to pursue diplomacy until the tanks roll,” the official said. “We are under no illusions about what is likely to come next. And we’re prepared to respond decisively when it does.”
Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said Tuesday the Russian side was still “ready for negotiations.”
Blinken is scheduled to host Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba for a meeting in Washington on Tuesday after speaking with him by phone Monday to “reaffirm unwavering U.S. support for Ukraine,” the State Department said in a statement.
Analyst and author Angela Stent of the Brookings Institution said Monday that a summit between Biden and Putin is an especially fraught proposition now.
“At this point, I think, to have another in-person meeting between President Biden and President Putin without some conditions being laid for the Russians, without them showing some goodwill or sincere interest in discussions by reversing some of the things that they’re doing, I think it makes no sense to do that,” she said to reporters and analysts. “Because, you know, otherwise we’re just playing into the Kremlin’s hands, and it looks as if they’re going to go ahead and do whatever they want to do irrespective of these negotiations.”
Author and analyst Steven Pifer agreed.
“I don’t want to downplay diplomacy,” he said. “But at this point in time, I would think that there would have to be some indication to the White House that a meeting with Putin would actually have a chance of yielding something. And right now, again, based on the experience that (French President Emmanuel) Macron had, that Scholz had, it doesn’t seem like these meetings – I think they are ego boosters for the Russian president, but they don’t seem to be doing anything to turn him from a course which has been one of continual escalation of the crisis.”
Biden spoke to both the German and French leaders Monday, and, separately, with Zelenskyy. In both calls, the White House said, “The leaders strongly condemned President Putin’s decision to recognize the so-called DNR and LNR regions of Ukraine as ‘independent.’”
Washington was immediately joined by the European Union in announcing sanctions, with EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Council President Charles Michel calling Putin’s recognition of these separatist areas “a blatant violation of international law.”
The Kremlin said Putin informed the leaders of France and Germany Monday of his decision and then signed documents declaring the regions as no longer part of Ukraine.
Putin, from a desk at the Kremlin, delivered a lengthy televised address to the Russian people, outlining his version of the history of national boundaries in Europe and the 1990s breakup of the Soviet Union.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, chairs a Security Council meeting in the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, Feb. 21, 2022.
He contended that Ukraine was “never” a true nation but rather historically a part of Russia.
About 14,000 people have been killed in the flashpoint Donbas territory since 2014 in fighting between pro-Moscow separatists and Kyiv’s forces, trench warfare battles that started after Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula.
The U.S. and its NATO allies have contended that Russia is staging false-flag operations in Donetsk and Luhansk to make it appear Ukrainian forces are an increasing threat. Kyiv says it does not intend to launch a full-scale attack on the region in eastern Ukraine, and the West says Russia is attempting to justify grounds for an invasion to protect Russian sympathizers.
The separatists want Russia to sign friendship treaties and give them military aid to protect them from what they contend is an ongoing Ukrainian military offensive.
The Russian parliament last week called on Putin to formally recognize the DNR and LNR, both of which declared independence from Ukraine in 2014.
Some material in this report came from The Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and Reuters. VOA’s Chris Hannas contributed to the report.