Updated Feb 21, 2022 - World

Putin orders Russian "peacekeeping operations" in eastern Ukraine

Putin
Photo: Alexey Nikolsky/Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images

Russian President Vladimir Putin announced in a combative, hourlong address on Monday that he will recognize two breakaway "republics" in eastern Ukraine as independent.

The latest: In a decree recognizing the independence of the Donetsk People's Republic (DNR) and the Luhansk People's Republic (LNR), Putin ordered the Russian military to conduct "peacekeeping operations" in the occupied Ukrainian territories.

  • The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations called Putin's "peacekeeping" description "nonsense" during Monday night's U.N. Security Council meeting on the crisis.

The big picture: The separatists don't hold all of the territory they claim so recognition could swiftly evolve into war unless Russia limits its operations to the separatist-held areas.

  • Analysts have also warned that Moscow could also use any attacks on its troops in eastern Ukraine — real or fabricated — as a pretext for a broader war.
  • The separatists declared independence in 2014 and have waged a low-scale war against Ukrainian forces since then, with military backing from Moscow.
  • The fighting has escalated since Thursday, with Kyiv accusing the separatists of persistent shelling across the line of contact.

What they're saying: Western leaders swiftly denounced Putin's move as a violation of international law and Ukrainian sovereignty.

  • White House press secretary Jen Psaki said in a statement that the U.S. would prohibit investment in the separatist republics and that further sanctions would be coming that were separate from the "massive" package promised if Russia invades.
  • European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and European Council President Charles Michel said in a statement that "[t]his step is a blatant violation of international law as well as of the Minsk agreements. The Union will react with sanctions against those involved in this illegal act."
  • Putin used his speech not only to announce recognition of the separatist republics but to make a broader argument that Ukraine is not truly a separate country from Russia, that the West is responsible for this standoff, and that Ukraine will bear responsibility for any "future bloodletting."

Between the lines: It's unclear whether the Russian troops will seek to secure only the territory the separatists currently hold or the entirety of the areas they claim (see map).

  • At a time when the White House continues to warn of an imminent, large-scale invasion, Putin's latest moves could be interpreted as a sign that his immediate military focus is on the eastern Donbas region and not on the capital, Kyiv.
  • Michael Kofman, an expert on Russia's military capabilities at CNA, contends it's more likely the first step in a broader military operation that won't be limited to the Donbas.
Map of Ukraine
Data: Mapbox/OSCE as of Feb. 14; Map: Will Chase/Axios

Background: Russia's Duma voted last week to ask Putin to recognize the DNR and LNR as independent.

  • The separatist leaders echoed that request earlier on Monday, before Russia's most senior officials took turns making the case for recognition in an extraordinary televised Security Council meeting.
  • The Kremlin claims Ukraine is preparing for a major military offensive in the east, which U.S. and Ukrainian officials have dismissed as absurd. More than 150,000 Russian troops are massed on the borders.

Zoom out: Russia claimed earlier Monday that its forces had killed five Ukrainians with anti-tank weapons after their vehicles crossed into Russian territory. The head of Russia's FSB intelligence service later claimed one Ukrainian soldier had been captured.

  • Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba denied the allegations and called on Russia to "stop your fake-producing factory now."

Worth noting: The justifications Russia appears to be building for war closely track with the playbook the Biden administration predicted Putin would follow.

  • They also seem choreographed in advance. Independent Russian network TV Rain noted that Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu's watch showed a time five hours earlier than the purportedly "live" Security Council meeting was aired.
  • Previously, separatist leaders had released videos announcing an emergency civilian evacuation which turned out to have been recorded two days before they were released.

Go deeper: Biden and Putin fight to control of Ukraine narrative

Editor's note: This story has been updated with additional details from Putin's televised address, Western leaders' reactions and information on the Russian president's decree.

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