Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered troops into Ukraine on Monday, just hours after he formally recognized the independence of two Moscow-backed breakaway regions in the eastern part of the country.
The order was seen by the United States and its European allies as a dramatic provocation after weeks of warnings that Moscow was trying to create a pretext to invade its neighbor. It led to the U.S. and the European Union announcing sanctions targeting the two areas, with more set to follow, and drew condemnation at an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council.
Putin framed the troop movement as a “peacekeeping” effort in both regions. The move came after days of escalation in the ongoing conflict between Kyiv's forces and Russian-backed separatists in Ukraine's east — and hours after he delivered a lengthy speech presenting his view of the relationship between the two nations.
Many experts believed Moscow’s formal recognition would effectively scuttle a previous cease-fire agreement in the conflict, which has been ongoing since Russia annexed Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula and moved to back the separatists in 2014.
Some Western leaders had hoped diplomatic progress in eastern Ukraine could provide a route out of the broader, monthslong crisis. Instead this escalation now leaves Europe facing the prospect of a deadly new conflict.
Russia has deployed more than 150,000 troops to converge on its neighbor's borders from three sides, prompting fears of an invasion that it has firmly denied it is planning.
In a wide-ranging televised speech Monday evening, Putin described Ukraine as a historical part of Russia that was illegitimately taken from Moscow and is now run by a “puppet regime” controlled by the U.S. and the West.
"Ukraine is not just a neighboring country. They are a part of our culture," he said.
Noting that Ukraine has taken down some of its Soviet-era statues, he warned Kyiv: "You want decommunization? We will show you what it’s like."
He then signed a decree formally recognizing the self-proclaimed "Donetsk People’s Republic" and "Luhansk People’s Republic," which have been controlled by Russian-backed separatists since 2014.
Alongside him were Denis Pushilin and Leonid Pasechnik, the heads of the Donetsk and Luhansk republics.
The separatist leaders called for evacuations of civilians to Russia last week, warning of an imminent Ukrainian offensive, and then announced a full military mobilization in the regions over the weekend.
Ukraine has repeatedly denied any plans to carry out an attack on the breakaway territories, and its Western allies have accused Moscow of attempting to create a pretext for an invasion, ears that were stoked further by an escalation in shelling on the frontlines.
More than 60,000 evacuees have arrived in Russia as of Monday, according to Russian emergency ministry officials.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said his country unequivocally sees Putin's action as a violation of its sovereignty and territorial integrity. It could mean a unilateral withdrawal from the Minsk agreements that sought to end war in the Donbas region, he said.
"All responsibility for the consequences in connection with these decisions rests with the political leadership of the Russian Federation," Zelenskyy said in an address late Monday.
"We are not afraid of anything or anyone," he said later in the address, referring to Russia's presence in Donbas since 2014.
"We owe nothing to anyone, and we will not give anything to anyone," Zelenskyy said, "and we are sure of that, because now is not February 2014, but February 2022 — another country, another army, one goal — peace, peace in Ukraine. Glory to Ukraine!”
The U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Linda Thomas-Greenfield, condemned Putin’s actions at an emergency meeting of its Security Council late Monday.
"He wants to demonstrate that through force he can make a farce of the U.N.," she said. "There will be a swift and severe response were Russia to further invade Ukraine."
Thomas-Greenfield called on other members to join in solidarity against Russia's actions. "No one can stand on the sidelines," she said.
"Putin wants the world to travel back in time, to a time before the U.N., to a time when empires ruled the world," she said. "Russia thinks it is 1919. It is not. It is 2022."
In addressing the meeting, the United Kingdom's permanent representative to the U.N., Barbara Woodward, said: “Russia has brought us to the brink. We urge Russia to step back.”
The U.S. State Department said late Monday that personnel in Lviv, a city in western Ukraine, will spend the night in Poland to keep them safe.
"Our personnel will regularly return to continue their diplomatic work in Ukraine and provide emergency consular services," the State Department said in a statement.
The U.S. evacuated most of its embassy staff in Kyiv on Feb. 12 and moved operations to Lviv because of concerns about Russia’s aggression in the region.
"We strongly reiterate our recommendation to U.S. citizens to depart Ukraine immediately," the State Department said.
Biden administration officials have discussed plans with the Ukrainian government for Zelenskyy to leave Kyiv and relocate to Lviv in the event of a Russian invasion, according to two people familiar with the discussions.
Earlier, Zelenskyy announced that he had spoken with President Joe Biden and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. A White House official said the call lasted about 35 minutes.
In a readout of Biden's call with Zelenskyy, the White House said Biden "strongly condemned Putin’s decision to purportedly recognize the 'independence'" of Donetsk and Luhansk.
"President Biden reiterated that the United States would respond swiftly and decisively, in lock-step with its Allies and partners, to further Russian aggression against Ukraine," the White House continued.
Biden followed up his call by signing an executive order prohibiting U.S. investment and trade in the Ukrainian breakaway regions. The order allows the administration to sanction any person who operates in those areas.
“We have anticipated a move like this from Russia and are ready to respond immediately,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said in a statement. “To be clear: these measures are separate from and would be in addition to the swift and severe economic measures we have been preparing in coordination with Allies and partners should Russia further invade Ukraine.”
The European Union condemned Putin’s recognition of the two regions in eastern Ukraine “in the strongest possible terms” and vowed sanctions of its own.
Biden also held calls with French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz. In a separate readout, the White House said Biden and the two European leaders "discussed how they will continue to coordinate their response on next steps."