Russia sets the world on edge as Ukraine conflict pushed into new phase


MOSCOW After recognizing the independence of two breakaway republics in eastern Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin defended the threats of his western adversaries and dispatched troops to defend the territories and their people against what he called a “Blitzkrieg.”

In doing so, the defiant Russian leader has pushed a lingering conflict in Europe into a dangerous new phase and once again set the world on edge.

Putin took the monumental decision Monday in a strident, nearly hour-long address to the nation. He ultimately said that the Russian-speaking majorities of Donetsk and Luhansk, which together make up the region known as Donbass, needed Russia’s political, cultural and physical protection, a need he could no longer refuse.

But in sending Russian forces into the republics to perform “peacekeeping functions” Putin risks turning the years-long standoff between Ukrainian forces and separatist rebels into the hottest of wars.

Acknowledging this very possibility, the Russian president issued a warning to the Ukrainian authorities, who have repeatedly denied responsibility for the dramatic spike in violence of recent days.

“We demand a stop to the hostilities immediately, otherwise all the responsibility for the possible continuation of the bloodbath will be on the consciousness of the regime that is ruling in Kyiv,” Putin said.

Western leaders condemned the independence recognition as a violation of international law, but their reaction was initially hesitant as they made telephone calls between world capitals, fine-tuning a retaliatory strategy they have been honoring since the first warnings of a Russian invasion that were forecast last fail

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy did not speak publicly but instead consulted with US President Joe Biden, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, European Council President Charles Michel and his National Security Council.

Zelenskyy has urged the international community to impose pre-emptive sanctions on Russia in order to stop an invasion, arguing that any measures after the fact offer no real protection to the Ukrainian people.

That hypothesis looks set to be tested in the coming days and weeks.

In Washington, Biden spoke with allied leaders and signed off on executive orders to prohibit Americans from investing, trading and engaging in financial activities in Donetsk and Luhansk — the first penalties to be put in place after the escalation.

The American orders also envision individual sanctions against anyone doing business in the disputed lands.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called Russia’s move “a blatant violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and international law.”

Global Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly said Canada would be following Washington’s lead — sanctioning the recognitions of independence and, separately, addressing the invasions with some form of the sanctions that they have worked up over the course of recent weeks.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, in a 2:45 am message on Twitter wrote: “World capitals don’t sleep now, regardless of their time zones. The scope and timeline of the sanctions are being finalized. Ukraine insists: further Russian actions rely on how the world reacts.”

Those sanctions are expected to penalize Russia more broadly by targeting banks, individuals and state-owned companies.

The retaliatory moves come as no surprise in Moscow.

“Once again they threaten us with sanctions,” Putin said in his televised address. “They will always find an excuse to introduce more sanctions regardless of the situation in Ukraine. The only goal they have is to contain the development of Russia. They will do that as before, without any formal excuse, only because we exist.”

The paranoid and persecuted tone of Putin’s speech was almost as troubling as the implications of his decision for global peace and security.

Putin, who won the Russian presidency for the first time in 2000, sounded the notes of a leader doomed to exclusion from the group of the world’s most powerful nations.

After the fall of communism, he said Russia made overtures to the west. It withdrew military forces from central and eastern Europe, helped end the Cold War, sought to improve security in Europe and even accepted the creation of the Russia-NATO Council, discussing security concerns with its one-time enemies.

“More than that, I will say one thing that I have never said before in public. I will say it for the first time: Back in 2000 when President Bill Clinton was visiting Moscow at the end of his term, I asked him how would America see Russia joining NATO?” Putin said. “I won’t give you all the details of that conversation, but the reaction to that conversation was reserved, let me put it this way.”

The NATO reject however watched as five waves of NATO expansion pushed the borders of the military alliance and its weapons and missiles ever eastward, ever closer to the western flank of Russia.

“That’s like having a knife against our throat,” Putin said.

In security negotiations leading up to Putin’s decision Monday, Russia has demanded that NATO pull troops back from eastern Europe, vow not to deploy offensive weapons and promise to stop expanding to the east, notably by accepting into its ranks Georgia and Ukraine.

NATO and the United States countered with proposals to build confidence between Russia and the western forces, such as sharing advance details of military exercises, holding mutual inspections of military installations and negotiating new treaties to limit and control missiles. But NATO refuses to close the door to any country aspiring to membership in the alliance, as does Ukraine.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken were scheduled to meet Thursday to discuss Russia’s security demands. This was to have been followed by a meeting between Putin and Biden, although the US president stipulated that he would only meet with his counterpart on the condition that Russian forces not invade Ukraine.

It’s unclear, in that sense, what the next steps might look like in this conflict. But the sheen of diplomacy, the time for kind words and handshakes, has been overtaken by events on the ground in eastern Ukraine.

Putin’s enmity toward Russia’s western neighbor and former Soviet ally was particularly evident, with his grievances against Ukraine’s western and democratic aspirations accounting for nearly half of his total speech.

He plunged into the history books, jumping from the 17th century to the Bolshevik Revolution, to post-Soviet years and noting that Ukraine’s borders have been repeatedly and arbitrarily changed by its myriad rulers.

His point — that the country of Ukraine is a sort of geopolitical clay to be molded by whomever happens to be in power — may have been an attempt to justify or minimize the impact of his recognition of the breakaway Donbass republics, which risk turning Russia into a pariah state.

Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin, Putin said, “squeezed” Donbass into Ukraine. Joseph Stalin parcelled out parts of western Ukraine to Poland, Romania and Hungary. Nikita Khrushchev “for some reason” took Crimea from Russia and offered it to Ukraine.

“This is how the territory of Soviet Ukraine was formed,” Putin said, omitting mention of how he oversaw the illegal annexation of the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea in 2014.

But he lamented the turn that Ukraine took after the breakup of the Soviet Union, describing how Ukrainians gleefully demolished statues and monuments to Lenin and turned their back to Russia.

“Do you want decommunization?” Putin asked, referring to the smashed Soviet monuments. “Well, that suits us just fine. But it is not necessary, as they say, to stop halfway. We are ready to show you what real decommunization means for Ukraine.”

In Ukraine, there are preparations for the worst.

Bloomberg reported that the American embassy in Ukraine, which had closed its operations and pulled staff back to the western Ukrainian city of Lviv, will now pull all staff out of the country.

Canada has already secured passage for Canadian citizens and permanent residents into the countries that share a border with Ukraine should the need for urgent or large-scale evacuations arise.

Meanwhile, unconfirmed video purported to show Russian military trucks already driving in convoy into the disputed republics, preparing to take up their positions.

The future of the conflict is murky, but the Russian presence in eastern Ukraine looks set to be lengthy, according to agreements signed between Putin and the leaders of the Donetsk and Luhansk republics.

The documents state that the legal currency in the territories will be the Russian ruble, that there will be joint patrols of the borders that Russia shares with the Donbass, that both sides will be able to build and use military facilities on the other parties’ territory and that the agreements will be in force for 10 years and be automatically renewed.

And as the Ukrainian government girds for an escalation in the conflict with their richer, stronger and better-equipped neighbour, officials emerged from an emergency National Security Council meeting with an offer to Donbass residents: It’s not too late to flee the “temporarily occupied territories” ” and switch sides.

The Ukrainian government stands alone against Moscow, but it has the western world on its side.

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