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U.S. and Allies Mull Sanctions Over Putin’s Donbass Move

Washington is left grasping for leverage after a frantic Monday.

By , the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy.
Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a ceremony to sign documents, including a decree recognizing two Russian-backed breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine as independent, at the Kremlin in Moscow.
Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a ceremony to sign documents, including a decree recognizing two Russian-backed breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine as independent, at the Kremlin in Moscow.
Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) attends a ceremony to sign documents, including a decree recognizing two Russian-backed breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine as independent, at the Kremlin in Moscow on Feb. 21. Alexey NIKOLSKY/Sputnik/AFP

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: Putin orders troops into occupied Donbass, Colombia decriminalizes abortion, and the world this week.

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Putin Recognizes Separatists, Orders Troops Across Border

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: Putin orders troops into occupied Donbass, Colombia decriminalizes abortion, and the world this week.

If you would like to receive Morning Brief in your inbox every weekday, please sign up here.


Putin Recognizes Separatists, Orders Troops Across Border

So far, U.S. President Joe Biden’s slip of the tongue in January about a possible Russian “minor incursion” has proved to be the most accurate of all U.S. intelligence predictions.

Although it may not fit the predicted schedule exactly, a Russian invasion of sorts is happening in Ukraine. It follows a frantic 24 hours of international diplomacy and Kremlin theater that led to Russian President Vladimir Putin recognizing the self-declared republics in the provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk in Ukraine’s Donbass region as independent states. Russian troops—which the Kremlin claims are “peacekeepers”—are now moving into the region on Putin’s orders.

The recognition is not expected to cover the entirety of the two provinces, two-thirds of which are still under Kyiv’s control, but rather the de facto borders “established to date” by pro-Russian separatists, a senior Russian senator told state media.

In moving more Russian forces into territory already under pro-Russian control, it’s not immediately clear how much this will change things on the ground. What is clear is that the Minsk accords—which sought to enshrine Donetsk’s and Luhansk’s autonomy within a Ukrainian state—are now in tatters.

Despite that reality, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Monday reiterated his commitment to diplomacy while striking a defiant tone. “We are committed to the peaceful and diplomatic path—we will follow it and only it,” Zelensky said. “But we are on our own land, we are not afraid of anything and anybody, we owe nothing to no one, and we will give nothing to no one.”

The United States has reacted with dismay, immediately banning U.S. citizens from doing business with the would-be republics. Now is the test of whether sweeping sanctions, threatened for such an occasion, will be imposed and whether European countries are willing to go along with them, given the immediate risks to their own economies.

A senior Biden administration official, speaking to reporters on Monday evening, indicated that the White House would continue with a light-touch approach. “Russian troops moving into Donbass would not itself be a new step. Russia has had forces in the Donbass region for the past eight years,” the official said.

Nevertheless, more sanctions appear to be on the way. Speaking late Sunday, a White House official said the Biden administration was “coordinating with allies and partners” on the announcement, expected Tuesday.

As my colleagues Robbie Gramer, Jack Detsch, and Amy Mackinnon report, diplomacy is still being held out as an option between the United States and Russia, with no word yet on whether a Biden-Putin summit will be canceled in the wake of Monday’s actions.

Those wondering what could happen next may find an imperfect parallel in South Ossetia, a breakaway region in Georgia that Russia recognized as independent in 2008. (In fact, Monday’s statement closely matches the Kremlin’s 2008 wording.) The muted international reaction to that episode is something that cannot be repeated, Natia Seskuria argues in Foreign Policy.


The World This Week

Wednesday, Feb. 23: The U.N. General Assembly debates the situation in the “temporarily occupied territories” of Ukraine. Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba participates.

Thursday, Feb. 24: U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov are scheduled to hold an in-person meeting in Geneva.

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan visits Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow.

Estonian Foreign Minister Eva-Maria Liimets, Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics, and Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis travel to Ukraine on a joint visit.

G-7 leaders hold a virtual summit to discuss Ukraine.

Friday, Feb. 25: French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian and Lavrov are scheduled to meet in Paris.

Sunday, Feb. 27: Philippine presidential candidates take part in a televised debate.

Belarus holds referendum on amendments to its constitution.


What We’re Following Today

The Iran deal. Negotiators enter another crunch week in Vienna, with an agreement to revive the 2015 Iran nuclear deal reportedly days away. Any deal will hinge on whether the United States proves “its will” to lift major sanctions, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi said on Monday. Key issues still outstanding in negotiations include the U.S. designation of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist group and assurances that the United States won’t later renege on the deal. 

Abortion in Latin America. Colombia became the latest Latin American country to expand access to abortion after its constitutional court decriminalized the procedure if undertaken in the first 24 weeks of pregnancy in a 5-4 decision. The ruling follows a court decision in Mexico last September effectively decriminalizing abortion, as well as a December 2020 vote in Argentina’s legislature to legalize abortion.


Keep an Eye On

Jordan’s royal funds. Jordan’s King Abdullah II and Queen Rania have been forced to defend the source behind hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of funds stashed in several Swiss bank accounts following a leak of Credit Suisse data. The couple have denied any impropriety but are still likely to face domestic pressure over the disclosure. “These recent reports are being used to smear His Majesty and Jordan and distort the truth,” Jordan’s royal palace said in a statement.

Mali’s transition. Mali’s military-dominated legislature has approved a transition plan that would delay democratic elections for five years, further pushing back a deadline that had been previously set for this month. The move is likely to raise the ire of the regional body ECOWAS, which has already imposed sanctions on Mali for dragging out its democratic transition following a 2020 coup.


Odds and Ends

A man in France is facing jail time and a $34,000 fine for inadvertently knocking out the internet of two French towns in an attempt to stop his children, who had “become addicted to social networks and other applications,” from going online.

The unnamed man resorted to purchasing a jamming device, thinking it would just block Wi-Fi and phone signals in his own home, but authorities were first notified that things may have gotten out of hand when a mobile operator noticed its antennae had stopped working. A technician from the French National Frequencies Agency (ANFR) was soon dispatched to diagnose the problem.

In the wake of the incident, the ANFR has warned that jamming devices tend to have a “wider range” than advertised.

Colm Quinn is the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @colmfquinn

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