The Kremlin said two Moscow-backed separatist territories in Ukraine had asked Vladimir Putin to “repel the aggression of the Ukrainian regime”, heightening expectations that Russia is poised to launch a full invasion.
Russian newswires published letters on Wednesday in which the leaders of the breakaway statelets in the eastern border area of Donbas asked Putin to use force to protect them from “ongoing military aggression” by Ukraine.
The White House said it was an example of the kind of “false flag” operations that Russia’s president was using to create the pretext for a large invasion. Josep Borrell, the EU’s chief diplomat, called it “a very dangerous additional step against Ukraine’s sovereignty that would put thousands of lives at risk.”
The development came on a day in which Ukraine braced for war, declaring a state of emergency and ordering its citizens to leave Russia immediately while the Pentagon warned Moscow had deployed 100 per cent of the forces needed for a major attack. Kyiv also requested an urgent meeting of the UN Security Council.
“Putin and his forces are as ready as they can be,” a senior US defence official said. “They’ve advanced their readiness to a point where they are literally ready to go now if they get the order . . . They could go at any hour now.”
The official added Russia had positioned more than two dozen warships in the Black Sea, including 10 amphibious landing ships. “These ships exist for one reason and that is to put boots on the ground,” the official said.
Kyiv and its western allies say the claims of Ukrainian aggression — which have been spread widely on Russian state television, backed up by little or no evidence — are “phoney allegations” meant to create a pretext for war.
The separatists’ plea to Putin was taken as another signal that Russia is on the precipice of launching a full invasion of Ukraine after it massed as many as 190,000 troops on the border, recognised the separatists’ independence, and vowed to hold Kyiv responsible for any “ensuing bloodshed”.
“The intelligence picture is looking extra grim tonight,” a western official told the FT regarding Russia’s military preparations on Wednesday evening.
The west imposed additional sanctions on Wednesday in hopes of persuading Putin to change course. The EU targeted officials close to Russia’s president while the US imposed sanctions on the company building the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline linking Russia to Germany — a move that a state department official said would render the prized project an $11bn “hunk of steel sitting at the bottom of the sea”.
But there was scant hope that those measures would change Putin’s calculus. In a heartfelt televised address delivered in Russian, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky appealed to the Russian people to stop the war.
“Lots of you have relatives in Ukraine, you studied in Ukrainian universities, you have Ukrainian friends. You know our character, our principles, what matters to us. Listen to yourselves, to the voice of reason. The people of Ukraine want peace,” he pleaded. “They’re telling you that this flame will liberate the people of Ukraine, but the Ukrainian people are free.”
Russia has recognised the separatists’ claims to the entire Donbas region. The separatists declared independence from Ukraine in 2014, although they only control about a third of the eastern industrial region following an eight-year conflict in which more than 14,000 have died.
Denis Pushilin, head of the Donetsk People’s Republic, the larger of the two groups, said earlier on Wednesday that the rebels demanded Ukraine withdraw from the entire Donbas and remove its weaponry from the region.
Putin on Tuesday said he was prepared to send troops into the Donbas and demanded that Kyiv “demilitarise”, surrender the entire Donbas border region to the separatists, recognise Russia’s 2014 annexation of the Crimean peninsula and declare neutrality.
He said Russia’s troops would not necessarily enter the Donbas “right now” but warned that Moscow would “fulfil the obligations it has undertaken if necessary”.
Though Russia has said it hopes the disputes can be settled through dialogue, the prospect of negotiations is essentially non-existent. Kyiv has declined to deal with the separatists directly throughout the conflict on the grounds that they are Russian proxies, and said Russia’s demands are unacceptable.
Western efforts to mediate the conflict collapsed this week after Putin recognised the separatists, prompting US secretary of state Antony Blinken and French foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian to cancel meetings with their Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov.