Putin Orders Russian Troops Into Ukraine’s Breakaway Provinces

Russia’s president recognizes the regions and sends in “peacekeepers.”

By , , and
Russian President Vladimir Putin signs documents.
Russian President Vladimir Putin signs documents.
Russian President Vladimir Putin signs documents, including a decree recognizing two Russian-backed breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine as independent during a ceremony at the Kremlin in Moscow on Feb. 21. Alexey Nikolsky/Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images

Putin’s War

Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered so-called peacekeeping troops onto Ukrainian soil on Monday night, just hours after giving a lengthy, rambling speech laced with conspiracy theories and falsehoods—announcing Moscow would formally recognize Ukraine’s breakaway regions in the eastern province of Donbass.

Putin’s order would authorize the Russian military to build bases on what is internationally recognized Ukrainian soil in the face of global condemnation. It came just an hour after U.S. President Joe Biden spoke by phone with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, pledging U.S. commitment to the country’s territorial integrity.

Putin’s decision to recognize the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics, spelled out in a speech that includes decades-old grievances against the United States and NATO, marks a significant escalation in tensions between the West and Moscow as almost 200,000 Russian troops amass near Ukraine’s borders.

Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered so-called peacekeeping troops onto Ukrainian soil on Monday night, just hours after giving a lengthy, rambling speech laced with conspiracy theories and falsehoods—announcing Moscow would formally recognize Ukraine’s breakaway regions in the eastern province of Donbass.

Putin’s order would authorize the Russian military to build bases on what is internationally recognized Ukrainian soil in the face of global condemnation. It came just an hour after U.S. President Joe Biden spoke by phone with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, pledging U.S. commitment to the country’s territorial integrity.

Putin’s decision to recognize the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics, spelled out in a speech that includes decades-old grievances against the United States and NATO, marks a significant escalation in tensions between the West and Moscow as almost 200,000 Russian troops amass near Ukraine’s borders.

Ukrainian officials pointed out that the ensuing Kremlin decree sending troops over the border bore striking resemblances to Putin’s order to authorize Russian military action in Georgia in 2008.

The speech and the arrival of Russian troops appeared to spell the end of diplomatic efforts to defuse the crisis, as Western officials have warned that a Russian recognition of the breakaway provinces would spell an end to a fragile 2015 peace deal. That deal, known as the Minsk agreement, offered a road map to resolving the conflict between Ukrainian forces and Russian-backed separatist fighters and a way for Kyiv to reestablish sovereignty over the region.

In another ominous sign, the remaining diplomats at the U.S. Embassy left Ukraine on Monday for Poland, Bloomberg first reported.

Top Western officials were swift to condemn Putin’s speech and decision to recognize the breakaway provinces as a clear violation of international law but stopped short of describing it as a full-scale invasion of Ukraine—which U.S. intelligence reports have been predicting. A senior U.S. administration official, speaking to reporters on condition of anonymity, said Putin’s speech was “[an] attack on the very idea of a sovereign and independent Ukraine.”

“This was a speech to the Russian people to authorize a war,” the official added.

The European Union announced almost immediately after the speech it would sanction “those involved in this illegal act,” and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson described the speech as “a very ill omen and a very dark sign” that the crisis will worsen. Meanwhile, Biden issued an executive order prohibiting new investment or financing by Americans to the breakaway regions, giving authority to sanction any American who invests there, and U.S. officials hinted that more sanctions would come on Tuesday.

But the senior U.S. administration official indicated Putin’s deployment of troops into the Donbass would not immediately trigger further U.S. and European sanctions, which are expected to target Russian banks and the energy sector.

“There have been Russian forces present in these areas throughout” the eight-year conflict, the official said. “We are going to be looking very closely at what they do and our response.” Only a further invasion past the breakaway areas would trigger the large sanctions package the Biden administration has hinted at, the official indicated, since Russian troops have been in the region since 2014.

In another sign of growing alarm, the United States has been issuing warnings to Russian political opponents, anti-corruption activists, and dissidents in Ukraine that the Kremlin has targeted to kill or capture, the official said. Foreign Policy first reported on Friday that the United States had obtained intelligence about people Russia would target if it further invaded the country.

During his speech, Putin gave no indication he would back down from aggressive posturing toward Ukraine and doubled down on historic grievances against the West dating back to the dawn of the Cold War and the centuries-old history of the Russian Empire.

“Ukrainians squandered not only everything we gave them during the [Soviet Union] but even everything they inherited from the Russian Empire, even the work created by Catherine the Great,” Putin said.

In a long missive laced with threats, Putin lambasted Ukraine for allegedly squandering its historical ties with Russia while falsely accusing Kyiv of trying to plan a military attack against Russia and obtain nuclear weapons. (Following the breakup of the Soviet Union at the end of the Cold War, Ukraine became one of only a handful of countries in the world to relinquish its nuclear weapons.) Putin also claimed without evidence that Ukraine had backed Islamist terror groups that killed ethnic Russians during the 2014 uprising against a pro-Kremlin government.

Putin made the speech sitting behind his desk, often leaning back and waving his hands as he outlined his grievances against the government in Kyiv and NATO. Putin’s speech appeared to unravel years of Kremlin grievances about years of U.S. encouragement of NATO’s eastward expansion; instead, it boiled down to the unacceptable fact of an independent Ukraine. In the end, Putin said, the former Soviet republics shouldn’t have left, and an independent Ukraine should not exist. “A steady statehood didn’t occur,” he said. Enhanced with U.S. and NATO weapons, Ukraine could pose a military threat to Russia, he claimed.

“As soon as Ukraine gets [weapons of mass destruction], the situation in Europe will be quite different,” Putin said. The United States, he added, could perpetuate a military strike from Ukrainian territory. “They hold a knife at our throat,” Putin said, though most U.S. troops left Ukraine more than a week ago. “We can’t help but react,” he said.

Ukraine is now a “colony with a puppet government,” Putin said, accusing Western countries of interfering in Kyiv’s politics, adding that leaders who were elected eight years ago had organized terror. “We know them by name and will do everything to punish them,” he added. Foreign Policy previously reported that the United States had obtained intelligence indicating that Russia had made up lists of pro-Western politicians, dissidents, and journalists it planned to kill or imprison as part of an invasion.

As Putin spoke, the U.S. national security establishment in Washington was feverishly working to gin up a response after Putin’s recognition of the breakaway provinces, which Western officials had warned would rip apart the Minsk accords that put forward a path to peace in Ukraine’s east.

Biden met at the White House with top cabinet and national security officials to monitor developments on Russia and Ukraine, a White House official said. Biden warned last week that Putin had made the decision to invade Ukraine in coming days, after Western officials accused Moscow and Russian-backed separatists of manufacturing a new crisis in eastern Ukraine as a pretext for war. Biden spoke with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky for 35 minutes following Putin’s speech, according to the White House, and convened a call with French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz.

Putin’s speech followed a highly choreographed televised meeting earlier in the day of the country’s top security officials. During that meeting, top Russian officials and heads of intelligence agencies took turns falsely accusing the Ukrainian government of perpetrating a “genocide” against the Russian-speaking population in Ukraine and urging Putin to recognize the breakaway provinces.

Putin’s order marks a major setback in Western efforts to defuse the crisis through high-level diplomacy, after Biden had earlier agreed “in principle” to meet with Putin. The White House has yet to announce whether Biden will scrap those plans after Putin’s decision to recognize the breakaway provinces. The senior U.S. administration official said diplomacy is likely to continue in spite of the setback.

Update, Feb. 21, 2022: This story has been updated with the news that Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered troops into Ukraine. It has also been updated to provide comments from an anonymous U.S. senior administration official.

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

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