Russian President Vladimir Putin has ordered forces to deploy into two breakaway republics in eastern Ukraine's Donbas region. This comes within around an hour of Putin signing decrees to recognize those regions as independent countries. You can get fully up to speed on how this situation has evolved already today and the potential ramifications in our initial reporting here.
Putin's orders direct the Ministry of Defense to "ensure the maintenance of peace" in the self-styled Donetsk People's Republic and Luhansk People's Republic, which are also commonly referred to by the acronyms DNR and LNR respectively. These troops will be deployed ostensibly on a peacekeeping mission, a justification the Kremlin routinely employs when intervening militarily against its neighbors. They will also establish bases to support these operations.
Russian-backed separatists declared control over portions of Donetsk and Luhansk in 2014, following Russia's seizure of Crimea. The Ukrainian government, as well as that of the United States and others, has long said that actual Russian troops have been directly involved in the subsequent conflict in Donbas, something the Kremlin has consistently denied despite significant evidence thereof.
This overt deployment follows new allegations from Putin and other Russian officials earlier today that, among other things, Ukrainian authorities have been planning their own new major offensive against separatists in the Donbas. Putin described Ukraine as preparing for a "blitzkrieg" into the region and reiterated previous claims that a "genocide" is being perpetrated against the citizens in the DNR and LNR. Russian authorities have provided no hard evidence to substantiate these assertions, which the Ukrainian government, as well as a number of international partners, including the United States, say are categorically false.
As The War Zone and others have already pointed out this chain of events reflects exactly the sort of pretexts Russia has long been likely to use to justify both an immediate intervention into the Donbas and potentially a larger invasion of Ukraine. Russian forces moving into the eastern part of Ukraine already gets them one step closer to objectives deeper inside the country should Putin decide to launch a larger intervention.
Any casualties they might suffer in subsequent fighting between separatist and Ukrainian forces would offer another justification for broader action. Putin has already said that if Ukraine does not agree to an immediate ceasefire it will be responsible for the resulting "bloodbath."
All told, this is an extremely worrisome new development in a crisis where the potential for at least immediate de-escalation already looks increasingly remote.
This is a rapidly developing story and we will update it as more information becomes available.
Update 10:30 PM EST:
More footage has emerged reportedly showing Russian forces moving into Donbas.
The actual text of Russia's new "friendship and mutual aid" agreements has now emerged. They include a collective security component and state the Kremlin's intention to "defend their sovereignty, territorial integrity." These deals between Russia and the DNR and LNR will remain in force for 10 years, after which they will automatically renew unless the parties decide otherwise.
In a speech of his own, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky decried Russia's actions and laid out a series of diplomatic steps he planned to take in the immediate future. This includes calling for a meeting through the framework of the Minsk Protocols, as well as with the United Nations Security Council and Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, and engaging with Ukraine's various international partners. Zelensky specifically noted that he had plans to talk with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is head of a NATO member state, but has his own complicated relationship with Putin and the Russian government. Erdogan has previously offered to mediate between the two sides of the current crisis. Zelensky also reiterated his country's inherent right to defend itself.
The U.N. Security Council session that Zelensky requested has already started. Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations for Political and Peacebuilding Affairs Rosemary DiCarlo decried Russia's decision to send troops into Eastern Ukraine, called for respect for Ukraine's territorial integrity, and warned of the danger of a broader conflict.
U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield said that Russia's description of its new force in Donbas as a "peacekeeping" contingent was "nonsense." She also flatly rejected Russian claims that Ukraine is seeking nuclear weapons, potentially with American assistance.
France and the United Kingdom, who along with the United States, Russia, and China, comprise the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, both slammed the Russian government over its actions regarding the Donbas today.
China's representative called on all parties to exercise restraint, while various non-permanent members of the Security Council, including Ukraine, decried the situation to varying degrees. Russia, for its part, reiterated its so-far unsubstantiated claims that it is Ukraine that is about to embark on a military "adventure" in Donbas.
The overall security situation in the region remains highly fluid. Citing security concerns emanating from Russia's decisions to today, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced that all remaining U.S. diplomatic personnel in Ukraine were at least staying the night in neighboring Poland. A group of U.S. special operations aircraft had been spotted flying toward the Polish-Ukrainian border earlier in the evening and may have been involved in this relocation, as you can read more about here. This, of course, came after the U.S. government had already moved the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine from the capital Kyiv to Lviv, which lies around 40 miles east of the border with Poland, last week as a security precaution.
There have been separate reports that the U.S. government has discussed possible evacuation plans with President Zelensky, though there is no indication that he is planning now to relocate internally or leave the country entirely, even temporarily. Any such decision would have serious political ramifications.
What further steps Russia or Ukraine, as well as other members of the international community, take in the coming hours and days very much remain to be seen.
We have ended our updates to this story and are continuing our coverage of this crisis here.
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