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White House wrestles with whether Russia has ‘invaded’ Ukraine

Putin announced he is sending troops into Russian-backed separatist regions within Ukraine. Opinions differ on whether that is an invasion of the country.

Russian President Vladimir Putin leads a meeting of his security council in Moscow on Monday. (AP)
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The White House on Monday confronted the reality that its months-long effort to avert a Russian invasion of Ukraine would likely be futile, as officials grasped for last-ditch ways to head off what one called “military action that could take place in the coming hours or days.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin spent the holiday weekend effectively closing off one diplomatic path after another, suggesting ever more clearly that he would not be swayed by diplomacy or deterred by sanctions. And by announcing that he was recognizing two pro-Russian separatist regions of Ukraine and ordering troops into them, he forced the United States into an uneasy dilemma about whether that constituted an invasion.

The Biden administration sought to hit back at Russia’s aggressive action while stopping short of declaring that it had officially invaded Ukraine, which would have triggered the array of hard-hitting sanctions President Biden has been warning about for months.

Instead, amid meetings Monday with his national security advisers and calls with several foreign leaders, Biden and his team reiterated their grim assessment of the crisis and imposed a smaller set of sanctions prohibiting U.S. investment and trade specifically in the breakaway regions.

Administration officials said additional measures — including more sanctions — would be announced Tuesday, and emphasized that the newly announced sanctions are different from the much larger ones Biden has been threatening should Putin invade Ukraine.

Ian Bremmer, president of the Eurasia Group, a global security consultancy, said Putin’s actions followed a certain logic, enabling him to make a move against Ukraine while throwing the West into uncertainty about whether it was serious enough to merit a full-blown response. Western diplomats have been predicting for days that Putin would, initially at least, take actions short of a full-scale invasion and capture of Kyiv, such as a cyberattack or a limited incursion.

“If I were advising Putin, I would tell him to do this because we have a problem now,” Bremmer said. Putin has deliberately “not gone all in” yet, Bremmer said, because “the entire point is, don’t make it easy on the West to respond.”

Earlier in the day, Putin delivered a televised address saying he had little choice but to recognize the pro-Russian separatist regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, enclaves within Ukraine that have been a source of bitter Russia-Ukraine tensions. Russia has increasingly suggested, with little evidence, that residents of those regions are under threat from the Ukrainian military.

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)

Watch: In TV address, Putin questions Ukraine's nationhood

In a call with reporters Monday evening, a senior Biden administration official warned that Putin’s address “was a speech to the Russian people to justify a war.”

Biden officials depicted Putin’s actions to this point, including regular complaints that Ukraine has acted belligerently, as an elaborate form of theater designed to portray Russia as a victim of NATO aggression and create a pretext for his longtime desire to reabsorb Ukraine into the Russian orbit.

“No one should mistake these theatrics as legitimate statecraft,” the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to share details of a rapidly unfolding situation. “This is Potemkin politics, President Putin accelerating the very conflict that he’s created.”

Still, the administration official repeatedly refused to say whether Putin’s decision to send “peacekeeping” troops into the two Russian-backed separatist areas constituted a red-line invasion in the eyes of the Biden administration. If anything, the official tried to portray Monday’s developments as far short of a dramatic change in the status quo.

“Russia has occupied these regions since 2014,” said the official, a point he emphasized several times throughout the call. “It has been Russia’s position that there are not Russian forces present in this part of the Donbas. The reality, as we pointed out on a number of occasions over these past years, has been quite different. There have been Russian forces present in these areas throughout.”

After the call, a different administration official defined a Russian invasion that would prompt a clear U.S. response as crossing into Ukrainian territory that Russia has “not occupied since 2014.”

Video from Feb. 22 showed military vehicles on the edge of Donetsk, one of two separatist areas in eastern Ukraine that Russia recognized as independent. (Video: Reuters)

Not everyone agreed. Donetsk and Luhansk are not generally recognized as independent countries, and some experts suggested that sending troops to them amounted to dispatching a military force into Ukraine itself.

Michael McFaul, the U.S. ambassador to Russia under President Barack Obama, tweeted that “Russia is invading Ukraine right now.”

“When you describe Russian soldiers invading Ukraine right now as ‘peacekeepers’, even when you use quotation marks, you are using language that Putin wants you to use,” he wrote in a follow-up tweet. “Call it what it is — an invasion.”

Bremmer said that what played out publicly Monday was the United States backing down from its previous threat to impose severe sanctions if Russia entered Ukraine.

“What the Americans had been saying until today was ‘One troop, one tank — serious sanctions,’ and we are recognizing in short order that they have just done this and we’re not sure we have our allies on board completely, and that’s a problem,” Bremmer said. “We’re getting jammed here. This is why Putin did this. It is completely the right strategy for Putin.”

Biden, meanwhile, who early in the weekend had nixed a last-minute trip to his home in Wilmington, Del., spent part of the day huddled with his national security team — a group that included Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin; Secretary of State Antony Blinken; CIA Director William J. Burns; Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines; Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas; Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen.

Biden also spoke by phone Monday with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, reaffirming the U.S. commitment to Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. He also had a joint call with French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz to discuss the situation.

Blinken had been tentatively scheduled to meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Thursday, provided that Russia did not invade Ukraine. Administration officials declined to say on Monday whether that meeting was still on.

On Sunday, the administration had also floated the prospect of a summit between Biden and Putin assuming, again, that Russia did not move ahead with an invasion and the United States thought such a summit could advance diplomatic negotiations. On Monday’s call with reporters, the senior administration official did not completely rule out that possibility but made clear that the likelihood of the two leaders meeting — as of Monday evening, at least — was close to zero.

The administration, the official said, “certainly can’t commit to a meeting that has, as a predicate, that Russia won’t take military action, when it looks imminently like they will.”

In a tweet Monday, as Putin’s latest actions became clear, Blinken directed harsh words at Russia.

“Kremlin recognition of the so-called ‘Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics’ as ‘independent’ requires a swift and firm response, and we will take appropriate steps in coordination with partners,” the secretary of state wrote.

But as Presidents’ Day weekend came to a close, the Biden administration’s definition of a “swift and firm response” remained nearly as murky as what exactly constituted an invasion.

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