KYIV — Russian tanks rolled into eastern Ukraine overnight Tuesday ostensibly on a peace-keeping mission and to protect two breakaway republics that Moscow fashioned eight years ago and is now formally recognizing as independent states.
But following a 56-minute bellicose speech, in which the Russian leader denied the very existence of a country called Ukraine, few in Kyiv harbor any doubts that the armored columns will sooner or later punch beyond Ukraine’s Donbas region with Putin’s decision to recognize the independence of the breakaway republics of Donetsk and Luhansk being seen as a prelude for likely more widespread military action.
In the friendship treaties Putin signed with Moscow’s breakaway republics, he committed to defending their borders.
Kremlin officials Tuesday declined to be pinned down on where the borders of the breakaway republics start and finish — whether their territory includes all of the oblasts of Donetsk and Luhansk or just the territory currently militarily occupied by the self-declared republics, which is about just under half of the Donbas region.
Asked by reporters in Moscow, Dmitry Pskov, the Kremlin spokesman, avoided clarification, and when asked whether the port city of Mariupol, currently held by Ukrainian forces, is considered as part of the new republics, he said: "I have nothing to add."
Western diplomats and residents in Donetsk confirmed the appearance of Russian tanks overnight Tuesday.
As the months-long geopolitical standoff over Ukraine shifts into a new even more ominous gear, Western countries joined in a chorus of condemnation, and more foreign governments ordered diplomats to leave Kyiv and to relocate to Lviv in western Ukraine, a short drive from the Polish border, a reflection of their growing worries that it won’t be long before Russian forces deployed on Ukrainian borders may soon be ordered to target the Ukrainian capital.
Australia became the latest country to relocate its mission, joining the United States, Britain and others to shift their ambassadors and their staff closer to the safety of neighboring Poland.
Western intelligence officials also fear the recognition of the breakaway republics is just part of a bigger war plan that’s now unfolding according to a playbook written weeks ago. They say that around two-thirds of the Russian forces amassed near Ukraine are now within 50 kilometers of the borders, are in battle formation and poised to commence military operations, although it is not clear if approval has yet been given by the Kremlin to launch a full-scale offensive.
Speaking in a televised, nationwide address after 2am local time, several hours after it was scheduled, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiyy strove to reassure Ukrainians saying the country is well-protected, and he added Ukraine reserves the right to defend itself from further Russian aggression.
"We are on our land, we are not afraid of anyone or anything," Zelenskiyy declared.
A somber but defiant Zelenskiyy urged international monitors from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, who have been observing an oft-broken ceasefire in eastern Ukraine struck in 2015 and brokered by France and Germany, to continue their work to help prevent provocations and further escalation.
The Ukrainian President also said he had called for an urgent meeting of the Normandy Format countries – Germany, France, Ukraine, and Russia — for talks on this latest move by Moscow in the Donbas, and he appealed to Western countries to stand by Ukraine. “It is very important now to see who is our real friend and partner, and who will continue ‘scaring’ the Russian Federation just with words,” Zelenskiyy said.
On Saturday in a speech at the Munich Security Conference, the Ukrainian leader chided Western powers for not doing much more to deter Russia from aggression.
In London, Britain’s Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, called a meeting Tuesday of his top security and intelligence officials to consider Britain’s response. The British foreign secretary Liz Truss tweeted that Britain would soon be “announcing new sanctions on Russia in response to their breach of international law and attack on Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
British officials said on in a phone call with Ukraine's president, Johnson had told Zelenskiyy “he would explore sending further defensive support to Ukraine, at the request of the Ukrainian government.”
The leaders of other Western allies were also scrambling Tuesday to fashion a response to Russia and to try to coordinate their actions. They still hope diplomacy will prevail and that Putin can be restrained by being coaxed and cajoled with threats of putative sanctions, but hopes are dimming fast that diplomatic action will work, say EU officials.
The European Union said it “will react with sanctions against those involved in this illegal act,” while NATO secretary general Jens Stoltenberg accused Russia of fueling conflict eastern Ukraine and "trying to stage a pretext" for a further invasion.
The fear among Europe’s leaders that the Russian President will order even bigger military action in Ukraine is partly rooted in the sheer bellicosity of Putin’s nearly hour-long speech that started with a long passage on the Russian leader’s views about the history of Ukraine and how the West robbed Russia of its lands on the fall of the Soviet Union.
Justifying his decision to recognize the breakaway republic, Putin said Ukraine is an integral part of Russia's history and said eastern Ukraine was ancient Russian territory. His historical narrative, laced with grievances he has aired many times before, is drawing criticism from authoritative historians for its eccentricity.
Putin’s speech, broadcast by all of Russia’s main television channels, came after a national security council meeting in Moscow which was also aired in full.
During the meeting, Kremlin hardliners urged him to recognize the breakaway republics of Donetsk and Luhansk. Some analysts noted that judging by the time displayed on the watch of one aide the Kremlin meeting was not in fact broadcast live but had taken place many hours earlier and was choreographed to persuade a Russian audience that Putin has the full backing of the country’s top leadership and his close advisers, while also showing his masterful control of the fast-moving geopolitical standoff with the West.
Senior officials lined up to echo the Kremlin’s days-long and unsubstantiated accusations that Ukraine has been preparing to mount an offensive to recapture the breakaway republics. Sergei Shoigu, the defense minister, told Putin Ukrainian forces were being built to mount an attack.
Kyiv has repeatedly denied the claims.
During his speech Putin accused the United States and NATO of “unashamedly turning Ukraine into a theater of war” and he raised the unsubstantiated claim that Ukraine has been plotting to manufacture nuclear weapons, which it could then use to attack Russia.
The overall tenor of the speech has left many Western diplomats and independent analysts reeling with German and French officials admitting privately they were shocked. Both Germany and France had been leading last-minute diplomatic attempts to find a diplomatic solution to the stand-off over Ukraine and had hoped to get a lasting deal on a ceasefire and political settlement in eastern Ukraine, but Putin appears now to have pulled the rug from underneath the Franco-German effort, their diplomats fear.
Kremlin officials say they have no plans to launch a full invasion of Ukraine and they are still open to discussions. “We remain open to diplomacy for a diplomatic solution, however, allowing a new bloodbath in the Donbas is something we do not intend to do,” said the Russian Ambassador to the UN, Vassily Nebenzia, Tuesday.
Ukrainian troops along the frontlines in the east of the country are under strict orders not to respond to shelling and artillery bombardments, which have dramatically intensified since last week, according to independent observers. Ukrainian officials fear skirmishes will be used as a justification for bigger military action by Russia.