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Putin orders troops to eastern Ukraine after formally recognizing two Moscow-backed separatist regions

The action by the Russian president was a dramatic escalation in a crisis that is threatening full-scale war

Russian military vehicles carry soldiers toward the border with Ukraine on Feb. 21. (For The Washington Post)

MOSCOW — Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday recognized the independence of two Moscow-backed separatist regions in eastern Ukraine and ordered Russian forces onto their territory for “peacekeeping” purposes, a dramatic escalation in a crisis that is threatening a full-scale war.

Putin’s action — in direct defiance of U.S. and European warnings — was swiftly condemned by Washington and Brussels, with top officials promising sanctions in response to the recognition of the self-declared republics. Secretary of State Antony Blinken decried the recognition as “a clear attack on Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

But amid reports of Russian military columns already appearing in the breakaway territories late Monday, the White House stopped short of announcing the full-fledged sanctions that President Biden had said Russia would face in the event of an invasion.

U.S. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield said on Feb. 21 that "the United States will impose sanctions on Russia" for the "clear violation of international law." (Video: Reuters)

For weeks, Putin has been holding the world on tenterhooks, with some 190,000 Russian personnel and enabling forces massed in and around Ukraine, even as top Russian officials have denied plans to invade the country.

In a televised address to the Russian nation Monday, Putin dropped much of the pretense, recognizing the Donetsk People’s Republic and the Luhansk People’s Republic and demonstrating to the international community that feverish rounds of diplomacy had left the 69-year-old former KGB officer undeterred.

“Ukraine has never had its own authentic statehood,” Putin said during a seething speech that delved into Soviet history to undermine the idea of Ukraine as an independent nation.

He dismissed Ukraine as a puppet state of the West and warned that the country could develop its own nuclear weapons, calling this a “real threat” that the West might help Kyiv achieve.

Russian officials for weeks have been claiming falsely that Ukraine is preparing an offensive to retake the breakaway territory in Donbas. In his speech, Putin appeared to threaten Kyiv with a broader war if Ukrainian forces didn’t immediately stand down. “Otherwise, all responsibility for the possible continuation of bloodshed will be completely and entirely on the conscience of the regime ruling Ukraine’s territory,” he said.

Putin authorized the Russian Defense Ministry to send forces into the self-declared separatist republics for “peacekeeping” purposes in official government decrees published by the state news agency RIA Novosti. Previously, the Kremlin denied putting Russian forces in the separatist enclaves, though their presence there has been well-documented by Ukrainian, European and American officials.

The agreement with the two breakaway territories signed by Putin also says Russia can have military bases there. Separatist leaders, however, do not control the entirety of the two Ukrainian regions. Since 2014, the Donbas region has been divided into separate territories: the Kyiv-controlled parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts, and the separatist Donetsk and Luhansk “people’s republics.” Russian-backed separatists control only about one-third of the region — about 6,500 square miles — along the border with Russia.

A senior Biden administration official characterized Putin’s speech as an attack on the very idea of a sovereign and independent Ukraine.

“This was a speech to the Russian people to justify a war,” the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity under ground rules set by the White House.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky for weeks has been urging the West to impose sanctions in response to the buildup of Russian forces and materiel around his country, but U.S. and many European officials have said the threat of sanctions should function as a deterrent to Putin and be triggered only after he invades Ukraine.

The senior Biden administration official said new sanctions will be imposed Tuesday but did not characterize their scope. The administration also announced a ban on U.S. trade with the breakaway regions.

Late Monday, the United Nations Security Council held an emergency meeting on the Ukraine crisis, following a request by Kyiv citing Russia’s decision to recognize the separatist regions.

Ukraine’s ambassador to the United Nations, Sergiy Kyslytsya, formally requested the meeting in a letter that cited Russia’s recognition of Donetsk and Luhansk as independent nations, as well as Moscow’s “ongoing aggravation of the security situation around Ukraine” and threat to “international peace and security.” The Washington Post obtained a copy of the letter.

Russia, which appeared largely isolated at the world body, also came under criticism from U.N. Secretary General António Guterres, who said the Kremlin’s actions were “inconsistent with the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.”

Zelensky told his countrymen in a video address posted on social media that “we will give up nothing to no one” and that Ukraine’s internationally recognized borders “will stay that way, despite any statements or actions taken by the Russian Federation.”

“It’s very important to see now who is our real friend and partner, and who continues to frighten the Russian Federation with words,” he said.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky gave a late night, emergency address on Feb. 22, after Russia recognized the two breakaway regions in east Ukraine. (Video: AP)

The State Department, which evacuated the U.S. Embassy from Kyiv to the western Ukrainian city of Lviv, said Monday that out of precaution, embassy workers would be staying over the border in Poland and commuting to Lviv to carry out their duties.

The situation presents a precarious moment for the White House. For weeks, Biden and allied leaders have been warning Russia that an invasion would result in severe sanctions on the Russian financial sector and export controls that would hobble the nation’s economy.

Now, they have to decide whether Putin’s decision to move Russian forces into the breakaway territories constitutes the sort of invasion that would trigger the full-fledged package of measures.

“Russian troops moving into Donbas would not itself be a new step,” the senior administration official said in a call with reporters, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter. “Russia has had forces in the Donbas region for the past eight years.”

Dozens of evacuees from the separatist regions were glued to their cellphone screens Monday, watching an extraordinary meeting of the Russian Security Council called by Putin to decide whether Russia would recognize the territories’ independence.

The evacuees in Taganrog Hotel, set up to accept the influx of people evacuating to Russia’s Rostov region from the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic just across the border, were convinced that Putin would accept the council’s recommendation and recognize the regions.

Hopes were high that this would put an end to a life in a gray zone.

“Were you listening to Putin? We were just now, and we are so happy that after eight years they are finally going to recognize us,” a woman, who declined to give her name, said in the foyer of the hotel.

“Why do you think no one is attacking Crimea? Because Putin made it part of Russia officially,” she added.

Daria Kaleniuk, a prominent anticorruption activist and executive director of the Anti-Corruption Action Center in Kyiv, blasted Putin’s speech. “I am convinced now there will be war,” she tweeted, “with [the] goal to destroy our country.” She urged the West to “act now” to sanction Moscow.

Biden, who met with his national security team at the White House, held a flurry of calls with Zelensky, French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz. They were unified in their condemnation of Putin’s action and discussed next steps in a coordinated response.

Putin has long waged a campaign of disinformation, falsely accusing Ukraine of “genocide” against the regions and claiming that Kyiv has mounted intensifying military attacks there. He has produced no evidence for his accusation.

In his lengthy address Monday, Putin advanced his controversial take on Ukraine’s history, decrying the collapse of the Soviet Union and dismissing Ukraine as a pseudo-state created by the Bolsheviks in the days of Soviet Premier Vladimir Lenin. Ukraine, he said, was “a colony with puppets at its helm,” where Russian speakers were oppressed.

“You want decommunization? That completely works for us. We are prepared to show what real decommunization means for Ukraine,” he said, appearing to suggest that he might seek to dismantle the country.

His speech, which lasted roughly an hour, expressed his long-held belief that Russia has been wronged by history and attacked by Western powers. He said Lenin and the Bolsheviks mistreated Russia by tearing away its historical territories, and he voiced a litany of grievances against Ukraine, which has been steadily moving toward the West for the last eight years.

Russian President Vladimir Putin criticized the West and referred to Ukraine as “a colony” in a televised address on Feb. 21. (Video: The Washington Post)

He attacked NATO’s expansion, saying Western countries wanted to hold Russia back and had never taken Moscow’s concerns into account.

“NATO completely ignores our protests,” he said, alluding to his demand for a guarantee that Ukraine never be allowed to join the transatlantic alliance. “They spit on them and do whatever they want.”

He warned that the West was using Ukraine as a “theater of potential warfare” against Russia.

Putin threatened those responsible for a 2014 fire in the Ukrainian city of Odessa that resulted in the deaths of pro-Russian activists. “We know their names,” he said, “and we will find them and bring them to justice.”

“The level of threat for our country is becoming greater and greater,” he said. “Russia has every right to take countermeasures to enhance our security, and that’s how we plan to act.”

He finished by announcing a step that he said “should have been done a long time ago” — to decree Donetsk and Luhansk independent states. The move breaches a 2015 Minsk peace agreement that was supposed to restore the two separatist regions to Ukraine’s control, but that deal was vaguely worded and never fully implemented.

Russia fomented uprisings in those two areas after annexing Crimea in 2014 and following Ukraine’s Maidan revolution, which ousted a pro-Moscow leader and ushered in a Western-leaning government.

Putin’s decree drew immediate rebukes on both sides of the Atlantic. White House press secretary Jen Psaki called it a “blatant violation of Russia’s international commitments.”

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen vowed that Europe and its partners “will react with unity, firmness and with determination in solidarity with Ukraine.”

Putin, in his speech, dismissed the prospect of sanctions. “They’re again trying to blackmail us, again threatening us with sanctions, which by the way they will bring against us anyway,” he said. “The goal is the same: to restrain the development of Russia.”

“All pretenses are gone,” said Eugene Rumer, director of the Russia and Eurasia program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. The mutual-assistance treaty Putin signed with the two regions now allows him to send Russian troops in “without any pretenses” of them being part of “an indigenous grass-roots separatist” rebellion.

“That in itself would be an act of war against Ukraine,” said Rumer, a former U.S. national intelligence officer on Russia.

The Donetsk and Luhansk regions are only partially controlled by Russia-backed separatists. If Russian troops pushed deeper into those parts of the regions held by Ukraine, the Ukrainian army would resist, Rumer said. “It could get very bloody.”

Sonne and Nakashima reported from Washington. John Hudson, Dalton Bennett and Sammy Westfall contributed to this report.