By Ken Bredemeier and Anita Powell
The White House said Monday it will slap sanctions on the Russian-speaking regions of Donetsk and Luhansk in eastern Ukraine, just hours after Russian President Vladimir Putin recognized them as independent states.
Putin’s pronouncement adds to Western fears that Putin is imminently set to invade Ukraine.
“We have anticipated a move like this from Russia and are ready to respond immediately,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Monday. “President Biden will soon issue an executive order that will prohibit new investment, trade and financing by U.S. persons to, from or in the so-called DNR (Donetsk People’s Republic) and LNR (Luhansk People’s Republic) regions of Ukraine. This EO (executive order) will also provide authority to impose sanctions on any person determined to operate in those areas of Ukraine.”
Washington was immediately joined by the European Union in announcing sanctions, with EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Council President Charles Michel calling Putin’s recognition of these separatist areas “a blatant violation of international law.”
And Psaki said the White House was prepared to do more if Russia invades Ukraine.
“We will also soon announce additional measures related to today’s blatant violation of Russia’s international commitments,” she said. “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 Kremlin said Putin informed the leaders of France and Germany on Monday of his decision and then signed documents declaring the regions as no longer part of Ukraine.
Putin, from a desk at the Kremlin, delivered a lengthy televised address to the Russian people, outlining his version of the history of national boundaries in Europe and the 1990s breakup of the Soviet Union.
He contended that Ukraine was “never” a true nation but rather historically a part of Russia.
As Putin spoke, the White House said President Joe Biden met with his national security team and was being regularly briefed on developments in Ukraine and the region. Putin has amassed 150,000 troops in Belarus to Ukraine’s north and along Ukraine’s eastern and southern borders.
About 14,000 people have been killed in the flashpoint Donbas territory since 2014 in fighting between pro-Moscow separatists and Kyiv’s forces, trench warfare battles that started after Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula.
The U.S. and its NATO allies have contended that Russia is staging false-flag operations in Donetsk and Luhansk to make it appear Ukrainian forces are an increasing threat. The West says Russia is attempting to justify grounds for an invasion to protect Russian sympathizers.
Video footage has shown some residents of the region streaming in heavy traffic out of the territory in recent days, with Moscow saying the people are fleeing to safety in Russia.
Putin announced the independence for Luhansk and Donetsk, a position taken by no other country, after meeting with the Russian Security Council. Hours earlier, the separatist leaders of the regions made a video appeal for the independence declaration.
The separatists want Russia to sign friendship treaties and give them military aid to protect them from what they contend is an ongoing Ukrainian military offensive.
The Russian parliament last week called on Putin to formally recognize the DNR and LNR, both of which declared independence from Ukraine in 2014.
Putin said there was “no prospect” for peace to end the fighting in eastern Ukraine, but Moscow has contended it has no plans to invade Ukraine, even as some 150,000 Russian troops are massed at Ukraine’s border.
Biden agreed “in principle” late Sunday to meet with Putin to discuss the crisis face to face, as long as Russia does not first invade Ukraine.
But Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security adviser, told ABC’s “Good Morning America” show on Monday, “All signs look like President Putin and the Russians are proceeding with a plan to execute a major military invasion of Ukraine.”
“We have seen just in the last 24 hours further moves of Russian units to the border with no other good explanation other than they’re getting into position to attack,” Sullivan said. “We can’t predict the exact time or day, but it certainly looks like the Russians are proceeding.”
Shelling in the Donbas region has ramped up in recent days, with the U.S. and its allies saying they believe Russia is launching “false-flag” operations it is blaming on Kyiv. Kyiv says it does not intend to launch a full-scale attack on the region in eastern Ukraine.
RIA, the Russian state news agency, said Russian military and border guards prevented a violation of the border by a sabotage and reconnaissance group from Ukraine and killed five fighters, while not sustaining any losses.
Whether a new Biden-Putin summit occurs is uncertain. Psaki, the White House press secretary, said U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov would first hold talks this week in Europe.
NATO countries, including the U.S, say they are willing to negotiate placement of missiles in Eastern Europe and military exercise in countries closest to Russia, but have refused to accept Putin’s key demand to rule out NATO membership for Ukraine and other former Soviet states.
“We are always ready for diplomacy,” Psaki said. “We are also ready to impose swift and severe consequences should Russia instead choose war. And currently, Russia appears to be continuing preparations for a full-scale assault on Ukraine very soon.”
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters Monday that there were not yet any concrete plans for a Biden-Putin meeting, but that such a meeting “is possible if the leaders consider it feasible.