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Washington Announces Sanctions After Putin Recognizes Breakaway Ukraine Regions

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U.S. President Joe Biden signs an executive order to prohibit trade and investment between U.S. individuals and the two breakaway regions of eastern Ukraine recognized as independent by Russia, at the White House in Washington, Feb. 21, 2022. (White House / Handout via Reuters)

The White House said Monday it will slap sanctions on the Russian-occupied regions of Donetsk and Luhansk in eastern Ukraine, just hours after Russian President Vladimir Putin recognized them as independent states.

"We have anticipated a move like this from Russia and are ready to respond immediately," White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Monday. She said President Joe Biden would issue an executive order prohibiting new investment, trade and financing by Americans in those areas.

Putin's pronouncement adds to Western fears that Putin is imminently set to invade Ukraine – something a senior administration official told reporters is a very real threat.

"In the last hour, we've seen Russia order troops to deploy into (Donetsk) and (Luhansk) for so-called peacekeeping functions," the official said.

Displaced civilians from the Donetsk and Luhansk regions rest in a sport hall in Taganrog, Russia, Feb. 21, 2022.
Displaced civilians from the Donetsk and Luhansk regions rest in a sport hall in Taganrog, Russia, Feb. 21, 2022.

"This wasn't a speech just about Russia's security," he said. "It was an attack on the very idea of a sovereign and independent Ukraine. He (Putin) made clear that he views Ukraine historically as part of Russia. And he made a number of false claims about Ukraine contention that seemed designed to excuse possible military action. This was a speech to the Russian people to justify war."

He said the White House would announce further measures on Tuesday for what the U.S. sees as a "clear violation of international law and Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity, as well as of Russia's own international commitments."

He would not say whether plans were still on for Secretary of State Antony Blinken to meet with his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, later this week. That meeting was intended to set the scene for a possible summit between Putin and Biden.

"We'll continue to pursue diplomacy until the tanks roll," he said. "We are under no illusions about what is likely to come next. And we're prepared to respond decisively when it does."

Analyst and author Angela Stent of the Brookings Institution said Monday that a summit between the leaders is an especially fraught proposition now.

"At this point, I think, to have another in-person meeting between President Biden and President Putin without some conditions being laid for the Russians, without them showing some goodwill or sincere interest in discussions by reversing some of the things that they're doing, I think it makes no sense to do that," she said to reporters and analysts. "Because, you know, otherwise we're just playing into the Kremlin's hands, and it looks as if they're going to go ahead and do whatever they want to do irrespective of these negotiations."

People wave Russian national flags celebrating the recognizing the independence in the center of Donetsk, the territory controlled by pro-Russian militants, eastern Ukraine, Feb. 21, 2022.
People wave Russian national flags celebrating the recognizing the independence in the center of Donetsk, the territory controlled by pro-Russian militants, eastern Ukraine, Feb. 21, 2022.

Author and analyst Steven Pifer agreed.

"I don't want to downplay diplomacy," he said. "But at this point in time, I would think that there would have to be some indication to the White House that a meeting with Putin would actually have a chance of yielding something. And right now, again, based on the experience that (French President Emmanuel) Macron had, that (German Chancellor Olaf) Scholz had, it doesn't seem like these meetings – I think they are ego boosters for the Russian president, but they don't seem to be doing anything to turn him from a course which has been one of continual escalation of the crisis."

Biden spoke to both the German and French leaders Monday, and, separately, with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy. In both calls, the White House said, "The leaders strongly condemned President Putin's decision to recognize the so-called DNR and LNR regions of Ukraine as 'independent.' "

Washington was immediately joined by the European Union in announcing sanctions, with EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Council President Charles Michel calling Putin's recognition of these separatist areas "a blatant violation of international law."

And Psaki said the White House was prepared to do more if Russia invades Ukraine.

"We will also soon announce additional measures related to today's blatant violation of Russia's international commitments," she said. "To be clear: These measures are separate from and would be in addition to the swift and severe economic measures we have been preparing in coordination with allies and partners should Russia further invade Ukraine."

The Kremlin said Putin informed the leaders of France and Germany Monday of his decision and then signed documents declaring the regions as no longer part of Ukraine.

Putin, from a desk at the Kremlin, delivered a lengthy televised address to the Russian people, outlining his version of the history of national boundaries in Europe and the 1990s breakup of the Soviet Union.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, chairs a Security Council meeting in the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, Feb. 21, 2022.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, chairs a Security Council meeting in the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, Feb. 21, 2022.

He contended that Ukraine was "never" a true nation but rather historically a part of Russia.

Putin has amassed 150,000 troops in Belarus to Ukraine's north and along Ukraine's eastern and southern borders.

About 14,000 people have been killed in the flashpoint Donbas territory since 2014 in fighting between pro-Moscow separatists and Kyiv's forces, trench warfare battles that started after Russia annexed Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula.

The U.S. and its NATO allies have contended that Russia is staging false-flag operations in Donetsk and Luhansk to make it appear Ukrainian forces are an increasing threat. The West says Russia is attempting to justify grounds for an invasion to protect Russian sympathizers.

Tanks move during the Union Courage-2022 Russia-Belarus military drills at the Obuz-Lesnovsky training ground in Belarus, Feb. 19, 2022.
Tanks move during the Union Courage-2022 Russia-Belarus military drills at the Obuz-Lesnovsky training ground in Belarus, Feb. 19, 2022.

Video footage has shown some residents of the region streaming in heavy traffic out of the territory in recent days, with Moscow saying the people are fleeing to safety in Russia.

Putin announced the independence for Luhansk and Donetsk, a position taken by no other country, after meeting with the Russian Security Council. Hours earlier, the separatist leaders of the regions made a video appeal for the independence declaration.

The separatists want Russia to sign friendship treaties and give them military aid to protect them from what they contend is an ongoing Ukrainian military offensive.

The Russian parliament last week called on Putin to formally recognize the DNR and LNR, both of which declared independence from Ukraine in 2014.

Putin said there was "no prospect" for peace to end the fighting in eastern Ukraine, but Moscow has contended it has no plans to invade Ukraine, even as some 150,000 Russian troops are massed at Ukraine's border.

Shelling in the Donbas region has ramped up in recent days, with the U.S. and its allies saying they believe Russia is launching "false-flag" operations it is blaming on Kyiv. Kyiv says it does not intend to launch a full-scale attack on the region in eastern Ukraine.

A Ukrainian serviceman points to the direction of the incoming shelling next to a building which was hit by a large caliber mortar shell in the frontline village of Krymske, Luhansk region, in eastern Ukraine, Feb. 19, 2022.
A Ukrainian serviceman points to the direction of the incoming shelling next to a building which was hit by a large caliber mortar shell in the frontline village of Krymske, Luhansk region, in eastern Ukraine, Feb. 19, 2022.

RIA, the Russian state news agency, said Russian military and border guards prevented a violation of the border by a sabotage and reconnaissance group from Ukraine and killed five fighters, while not sustaining any losses.

NATO countries, including the U.S, say they are willing to negotiate placement of missiles in eastern Europe and military exercise in countries closest to Russia, but have refused to accept Putin's key demand to rule out NATO membership for Ukraine and other former Soviet states.

Some material in this report came from The Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and Reuters.

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