Russian lawmakers give Putin green light for troops to Ukraine
Russian lawmakers on Tuesday gave Vladimir Putin the green light to deploy forces abroad, paving the way for the Russian leader to send troops into Ukraine despite a fierce global backlash.
The unanimous approval by Russia's upper house, the Federation Council, allows Putin to deploy "peacekeepers" to two breakaway Ukrainian regions now recognised by Moscow as independent, and potentially into other parts of Ukraine.
It came in the face of a wave of new sanctions announced by the United States, Britain and European Union, after Putin recognised the self-declared Donetsk and Lugansk rebel republics -- including an announcement that Germany was halting certification of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia.
Putin's plans remained unclear, but Western officials have been warning for weeks he has been preparing for an all-out invasion of Ukraine, a move that would spark a catastrophic war in Europe.
Speaking to journalists shortly after the approval, Putin said the Minsk peace agreements on Ukraine's conflict no longer existed and he recognised claims by the separatists to more territory than they currently control.
He left the door open to a solution, saying the deployment of Russian troops would "depend on the specific situation... on the ground" and appearing to offer Ukraine a way out by giving up on its hopes to join the US-led NATO military alliance.
"The best solution... would be if the current Kyiv authorities themselves refused to join NATO and maintained neutrality," Putin said.
- 'Every indication' of invasion -
The Russian foreign ministry said it would soon evacuate its diplomatic staff from Moscow to "protect their lives".
NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg said the alliance had "every indication" that Moscow "continues to plan for a full-scale attack on Ukraine".
Kyiv showed no sign of backing down to Moscow, with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba in Washington calling on the EU to promise his country membership and for the West to supply it with more weapons.
"Our best guarantees will be our diplomacy and arms. We will mobilise the whole world to get everything we need to strengthen our defences," Kuleba said.
Kyiv recalled its top diplomat from Moscow as President Volodymyr Zelensky warned Putin's recognition of the breakaway regions heralded "further military aggression" against Ukraine.
Kuleba had earlier called on Kyiv's Western allies to impose "tough sanctions" over Russia's actions and many were moving quickly.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said EU foreign ministers on Tuesday "unanimously agreed on an initial sanctions package", as he cancelled a meeting with his Russian counterpart planned for Friday.
"The sanctions will hurt Russia and will hurt a lot," EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell told reporters, adding that targets for asset freezes and visa bans included 351 members of Russia's lower house State Duma.
- Biden to speak -
With US President Joe Biden due to speak, the White House said it would reveal its own "severe" measures later in the day.
Britain slapped sanctions on five Russian banks and three billionaires.
In some capitals there has been debate over whether sending troops into an area that was already controlled by Russian-backed rebels amounts to the kind of all-out invasion that would justify imposing the harshest sanctions.
But Putin's rhetoric about the borders of the separatist regions was sure to raise concerns.
Putin said that by recognising the rebel regions, Russia was also recognising "the borders within the Donetsk and Lugansk regions at the time when they were part of Ukraine."
Separatist-controlled territories cover only about a third of the total area of Ukraine's Donetsk and Lugansk regions, and several cities in the regions, including the Black Sea port of Mariupol, are outside rebel territory.
In the frontline town of Shchastya on Tuesday, shellfire rang out around an electric power station as fearful residents awaited the Russian deployment.
A shell hit the roof of 59-year-old Valentyna Shmatkova's apartment block overnight, shattering all the windows in her two-room apartment.
"We spent the war in the basement," she said, referring to the 2014 fighting that saw the region break away from Ukraine.
"But we weren't expecting this. We never thought Ukraine and Russia wouldn't end up agreeing."
- Political theatre -
Most Western officials were not yet describing Putin's moves as an invasion, but US officials say there is a 150,000-strong Russian force poised to launch an all-out assault.
Putin announced he was recognising the territories, which broke away from Kyiv's control in 2014 in a conflict that cost 14,000 lives, in a day of political theatre in Moscow.
After a dramatic televised meeting with his top officials, Putin spoke to the Russian people in a 65-minute address from his Kremlin office.
In the often angry speech, Putin railed against Ukraine as a failed state and "puppet" of the West, accusing Kyiv of preparing a "blitzkrieg" to retake the separatist regions.
He was then shown signing "friendship" agreements with rebel leaders that allowed for the official deployment of Russian forces to "maintain peace" and the sharing of military bases and border protection.
Fighting appeared to have eased slightly on Tuesday, with the Ukrainian military saying there had been 47 ceasefire breaches between midnight and 5:00 pm, with two soldiers wounded.