Months of dire warnings and diplomacy by the Biden Administration failed to deter Russian President Vladimir Putin from ordering his forces into eastern Ukraine, a move American and European officials fear will presage a full-scale invasion.
On Monday, Putin recognized the independence of Donetsk and Luhansk, two breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine controlled by Moscow-backed separatists, and then directed Russian troops to occupy the territory for “peacekeeping functions.” The decision effectively abrogated the Minsk ceasefire agreement signed after Putin illegally annexed Crimea in southern Ukraine in 2014.
In a fiery, hour-long national address, Putin made the erroneous claims that Ukraine was historically part of Russia and “never had traditions of its own statehood.” He also claimed the country was now ruled by a “puppet regime” under the control of the U.S. and Europe. “Ukraine is not just a neighboring country, they are a part of our culture,” he said.
Putin also appeared to lay the groundwork for further escalation by calling on Ukraine to “immediately cease military action,” and warning that “the possibility of a continuation of bloodshed will be fully and wholly on the conscience of the regime ruling the territory of Ukraine.”
The world’s attention now shifts to President Joe Biden and how he responds to Russia’s aggression and a volatile situation that could result in the largest conflict on the European continent since World War II. Administration officials have said that more than 50,000 Ukrainians could die in the crossfire of an invasion that leads all the way into the Ukrainian capital.
Biden spoke Monday with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and “strongly condemned Putin’s decision,” while promising to “respond swiftly and decisively, in lock-step with its Allies and partners, to further Russian aggression against Ukraine,” the White House said in a statement. Zelensky, for his part, urged Ukrainians to keep calm in a nationally televised speech and called on allies to show their support.
Biden signed an executive order that prohibited any U.S. investment and trade in the regions that Putin was attempting to seize but did not impose any penalties directly on Russia or its leadership. A senior administration official, who spoke to reporters on the condition of anonymity, said the White House was still determining further courses of action despite earlier administration statements of a “swift and firm response.”
For now, the initial round of limited sanctions appeared to provide the U.S. and European allies room for diplomacy to avoid miscalculation on all sides. “We will take further measures tomorrow to hold Russia accountable for this clear violation of international law and Ukraine sovereignty and territorial integrity, as well as of Russia’s own international commitment,” the senior official said.
The invasion marks a critical standoff between the U.S. and Russia, two nations that command the world’s largest nuclear arsenals. Putin has successfully dragged Biden into having to respond to a frustrating series of escalations, complicating the U.S. response to Russia’s actions, distracting from other diplomatic priorities, and upping the political stakes for the American president. Biden has repeatedly said he has no intention to entangle U.S. armed forces in another foreign war. His approval ratings sagged after a turbulent withdrawal from Afghanistan last summer led the Taliban to take control of the country, and this represents Biden’s second major foreign policy test as President.
Putin’s declaration came after several days’ worth of phone calls and meetings with world leaders attempting to dissuade the Russian president from moving forward with an invasion. Russian troops, tanks and artillery surround Ukraine on all sides: in Belarus to the north, Russia to the east, Crimea to the south and Moldova to the west. In recent days, the forces have continued to move closer to the border in positions that U.S. officials characterized as signaling an imminent invasion.
At the same time, there’s been a drastic rise of explosive attacks in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine, which the administration calls “false-flag operations” that are meant to justify a Russian military presence. “These attempts at disinformation aren’t fooling anyone, but the human costs of these actions are already accruing,” the senior administration official said. “Russian-backed forces are driving civilians in eastern Ukraine from their homes and conscripting men and boys in those regions against their will. The human costs of a further Russian invasion and occupation will be devastating.”
The Biden Administration had hoped to resolve the deteriorating situation through diplomacy. But the lack of progress has prompted the U.S. to take increasingly urgent steps in response to Putin’s moves. As Russian forces continue to build, the State Department ordered non-essential staff and family members to leave the U.S. embassy from Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, out of “an abundance of caution.” In recent weeks, Biden has moved troops, naval ships and warplanes into eastern Europe and warned all Americans to leave Ukraine immediately.
Biden directed an Army Stryker squadron consisting of 1,000 troops to move from Germany into Romania, a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) alliance, in order to join the 900 U.S. forces already there. An additional 1,700 soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division and 300 troops from 18th Airborne Corps are heading to Poland, another NATO ally concerned about the security of its eastern border.
There are a small number of U.S. troops in Ukraine, which is not a NATO member. Biden has made clear that he has no plans to send additional forces in. He has sent more than $600 million of security assistance to Ukrainian government for weapons, equipment and materiel over the past year.
Biden has promised sweeping economic sanctions and increased military support to Ukrainian forces should Moscow invade Ukraine, but the administration’s threats have lacked specificity, says Ryan Crocker, a retired diplomat who served as ambassador in Lebanon, Kuwait, Syria, Pakistan, Iraq and Afghanistan over his 37-year career. “I’m really concerned that I’m not seeing a concrete expression of what happens to Russia if they go in,” he says, adding that NATO has also failed to articulate the costs it plans to impose. “NATO doesn’t run by itself. We either lead the Atlantic Alliance, or the Atlantic Alliance probably isn’t going to get much done.”
Crocker believes Biden’s mishandling of the withdrawal from Afghanistan caught the attention of adversaries like Russia and China. Following his decision to pullout of the war after 20 years, Biden failed to closely consult and coordinate with Western partners, essentially leaving them to scamper for the exits, Crocker said. “The whole world saw what happened,” Crocker says. “He’s got to show that he can do a whole lot better on another major international issue than he did on Afghanistan.”
For months, Putin has said he had no intention to send his forces into Ukraine. Instead, he’s repeatedly demanded that U.S. forces withdraw from eastern Europe and disallow any other former Soviet-bloc nations, like Ukraine, from joining NATO—concessions the U.S. has already dismissed out of hand.
The White House said late Sunday that Biden had agreed to meet with Putin as long as Russia did not invade Ukraine. That conversation now appears unlikely.
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