(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.”
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.