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Europe plunged to brink of war as Putin sends troops to Ukraine

In a dizzying escalation in the Ukraine conflict, the West is hitting back with sanctions after Moscow recognized breakaway Ukrainian regions and sent tanks and troops across the border.

(CN) — After weeks of threats, escalating tensions and desperate diplomacy, Russian President Vladimir Putin brought the world to the brink of a major war by ordering tanks and troops into pro-Russian breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine late Monday.

In retaliation, the United States and its Western allies on Tuesday moved to impose harsh new economic sanctions on Moscow, bringing a long-festering conflict between Russia and the West to a point of a catastrophic and long-lasting rupture.

Russian troops were sent into the separatist-held regions of Donetsk and Luhansk following a violent weekend of heavy bombing, alleged acts of sabotage and purported so-called “false flag” operations in eastern Ukraine. Several fighters and at least a couple of civilians were reportedly killed.

For the past eight years, Russia has been supporting an armed rebellion in eastern Ukraine against pro-Western and anti-Russian governments that have seized control of Ukraine since the U.S.-backed overthrow of a pro-Russian president took place during the so-called “Maidan Revolution” in 2013 and 2014.

In a pugnacious, fury-tinged and nationalistic speech on Monday night, Putin accused the U.S. and its NATO allies of betraying peace in Europe by taking a domineering stance toward Russia since the end of the Cold War and of breaking promises to Soviet leaders that they would not bring NATO to Russia's doorstep.

“The U.S. and NATO have turned Ukraine into a theater of war,” Putin said. “If Ukraine was to join NATO it would serve as a direct threat to the security of Russia.”

At the end of the aggrieved speech, he signed a decree recognizing the breakaway self-declared republics of Donetsk and Luhansk as independent states, a move that opened the way for him to claim Russian troops being sent to the regions will act as “peacekeepers” in the face of Ukrainian aggression towards Russian-speaking populations there.

The U.S. and its allies forcefully condemned Putin, calling his action a breach of international law, an act of war and effectively ending peace talks over the future of the breakaway regions, a ceasefire deal known as the Minsk Agreements.

“Russia’s clear attack on Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity is unprovoked,” said Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the American U.N. ambassador, at an emergency Security Council meeting late Monday.

She accused Putin of “testing our international system, he is testing our resolve and seeing how far he can push us all,” and seeking to recreate the Russian empire.

“Putin wants the world to travel back in time. To a time before the United Nations. To a time when empires ruled the world,” she said. “But the rest of the world has moved forward. It is not 1919. It is 2022.”

For the British foreign secretary, Liz Truss, the latest attack on Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity "signals an end to the Minsk process and is a violation of the U.N. charter."

“It demonstrates Russia’s decision to choose a path of confrontation over dialogue," Truss said.

French President Emmanuel Macron called the recognition of the breakaway republics “a unilateral violation of Russia’s international commitments and an attack on the sovereignty of Ukraine.”

Antonio Guterres, the secretary general of the United Nations, said through a spokesperson that he was “greatly concerned” by Russia's recognition of the eastern regions and called for “the peaceful settlement of the conflict in eastern Ukraine, in accordance with the Minsk Agreements.”

Guterres said Russia's action was a “violation of the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine and inconsistent with the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.”

People from the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, the territory controlled by a pro-Russia separatist governments in eastern Ukraine, watch Russian President Vladimir Putin's address at their temporary place in Rostov-on-Don region, Russia, Monday, Feb. 21, 2022. (AP Photo/Denis Kaminev)

In Kyiv, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, denied that Ukrainian forces were shelling the separatist areas and urged Western powers to provide his country with more help. He also called for Ukrainians to remain calm. The conflict in Ukraine has hit the country's economy hard and global stock markets are being hit by the crisis.

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“We are on our own land,” Zelenskyy said in a brief statement to his nation. “We are not afraid of anything or anyone.”

In his hour-long speech, Putin portrayed the crisis in Ukraine as the result of a U.S.-backed coup d'etat in 2014 that turned a country with historical ties to Russia into an anti-Russian “puppet” state and a launching pad for NATO operations against Moscow.

He accused political elites in Kyiv of conducting a “genocide” against ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine by outlawing the Russian language, depriving them of their rights and launching a military campaign against them.

Before the conflict started, up to 6 million people lived in the disputed territories of Luhansk and Donetsk, an area known also known as Donbas. Now, up to 3 million people remain. It was during Soviet times a major industrial area where many ethnic Russians live.

Following the 2014 Maidan Revolution, Putin ordered the annexation of Crimea, the base for Russia's Black Sea Fleet, and ignited the separatist war in the Donbas.

Since the Minsk Agreements ended the worst of the fighting, separatists and Ukrainian forces have faced off at a frontline that cuts through territories claimed by the breakaway republics. It is now feared that Russian troops will seek to push out Ukrainian forces from those areas claimed by the separatists, which would be a significant escalation in the war and be labeled as a further invasion of Ukraine. On Tuesday, Russia raised that prospect by declaring it recognizes the full territory claimed by the separatists. Adding to fears of a full-scale invasion, Russia’s parliament approved military action abroad.   

In defending his actions, Putin argued that the borders of Ukraine were arbitrarily established by Vladimir Lenin's Bolsheviks after the 1917 October Revolution and by subsequent Soviet leaders.

He charged that the West's efforts to turn Ukraine away from Russia and join the European Union and NATO have not only endangered Russia militarily, and therefore undermined the balance of power among great nations, but also created a failed state by severing economic ties with Russia, allowing corruption to thrive and supporting a vehemently anti-Russian Ukrainian nationalist movement to take root.

“Maidan did not bring Ukraine any closer to democracy and progress,” Putin said. “Having accomplished a coup d'etat, the nationalists and those political forces that supported them eventually led Ukraine into an impasse, pushed the country into the abyss of civil war.”

At the Security Council meeting, Russia’s U.N. ambassador, Vassily Nebenzia, said the Kremlin had not closed the door on diplomacy.

“We remain open to diplomacy,” Nebenzia said. “However, allowing a new bloodbath in Donbas is something we’re not prepared to do.”

Western leaders and experts dismissed Putin’s speech as that of a raging tyrant seeking to rewrite history and reconstitute the Russian empire with himself as the country's new tsar. Often, his aggression toward Ukraine is compared to Adolf Hitler's invasions that led to the outbreak of World War II. Many Western experts warn against a policy of appeasement toward Putin.

Michael McFaul, a former U.S. ambassador to Russia and a frequent commentator on American television, said the West must confront the Kremlin with wide-ranging sanctions and other actions.

“This reminds me of the beginning of World War II when first it was annexation; Hitler said, you know, I'm just going to do that, I'm not going to go any further,” McFaul said, speaking on CNBC. “We should get ahead of history here and not just wait for this massive military intervention.”

“Invasions are invasions, they should be called that,” he said. He warned against not imposing the strictest of sanctions.

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The U.S. and its allies have warned that Russian banks could be kicked out of the dollar-dominated international financial system, a step that could cause major repercussions. Western leaders were involved in intense talks over what steps to take in retaliation.

“I understand their logic” in not imposing the toughest measures, McFaul said. “They're worried about an even bigger war, rightfully so. I think that bigger war is coming. They don't want to use all their sanctions now, they want to have something left to respond. ... We have to learn from history and not just repeat history.

“I want to be clear," the ambassador added, "I don't think sanctions are going to stop Vladimir Putin, I don't think they're going to stop or really impact his decision making. But at least it signals to the world and especially to Ukrainians that we care about these principles of sovereignty.”

At Stanytsia Luhanska in eastern Ukraine, the only crossing point open daily, people wait on Tuesday, Feb. 22, 2022, to cross to areas controlled by the Ukrainian government from territory controlled by pro-Russian separatists. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)

McFaul dismissed Putin's grievances about NATO expansion as the trigger for the crisis as false and rejected those who argue against treating Russia harshly because that could make the situation even worse.

“We don't need to play games about pretext for war,” McFaul said. “Putin just invaded Ukraine; he just sent soldiers and tanks into a sovereign country called Ukraine. So, blaming us, claiming that we're goading him and the fictitious drama about NATO expansion, that unfortunately some people in the West have jumped onto to say it's all our fault. No, sometimes there's right and wrong in the world. It's wrong to invade your neighbors, it's wrong to take territory from your neighbor and that demands a clear response.”

Timothy Snyder, an American historian who's written extensively on Ukraine and who appears often as a commentator in the West, said on MSNBC that Putin's version of historical events involving Ukraine, its development as an independent nation and the idea that Ukraine is at fault for the conflict are “completely false.”

“Russia's story about its invasion of Ukraine is that the Ukrainians somehow started it,” he said. “That is course completely false.”

He called Putin's speech “hysteria” and that he “used very wide-ranging rhetoric to try to explain what he was doing."

“It's very strange when you are surrounded by the reality of Ukrainian history to hear a distant tyrant declare that the thing simply doesn't exist,” he added. “Obviously, he's wrong.”

Snyder worried that Putin has become blinded by ideology and will push Russia into bloodshed without considering the consequences.

“When you deny another nation exists, you are making a claim that it is okay to destroy that other nation,” Snyder said. “This kind of language that another nation doesn't exist is something we have to pay attention to because it usually precedes atrocious actions.”

He dismissed the notion Putin described, that the West has sought to “keep Russia behind, to prevent it from developing."

“Russia is the biggest country in the world,” Snyder said. “The West does not threaten Russia in any material way. The problems Russia has with its development have to do with the fact that its wealth is highly concentrated in the hands of a few men who happen to be the same men who run the country.”

He added: “The rhetoric that Mr. Putin is using today is designed to flip the story so that the men who are incredibly wealthy and powerful can portray themselves as the victims of some kind of international conspiracy.”

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

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