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Russia faces massive sanctions as Putin orders troops into east Ukraine

Russia faced a furious global diplomatic and economic backlash Tuesday after President Vladimir Putin ordered his forces into Ukraine to secure two breakaway regions.

Germany announced that it was halting certification of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia and said the European Union would adopt “robust and massive” economic sanctions.

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.

Putin’s move — which came with tens of thousands of Russian soldiers on Ukraine’s borders and amid warnings of an all-out invasion — was quickly and widely condemned by Kyiv’s allies in the West.

“We strongly condemn all military and hybrid actions against Ukraine,” Estonia’s President Alar Karis declared after flying in to Kyiv to stand in solidarity with Zelensky.

“Indeed it is a decisive moment in European history. President Putin will answer to the future generations for his violent actions,” he vowed.

– ‘Robust and massive’ –

But in some capitals there was 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.

In a statement issued during a visit to Washington, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said he was working with Kyiv’s friends “to impose tough sanctions against the Russian Federation.”

In Moscow the lower house of the Russian parliament, the Duma, voted to approve Putin’s friendship deals with the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) and Lugansk People’s Republic (LNR).

This will give Putin legal cover for the deployment of forces into the rebel-held territories, but will not protect Moscow from the diplomatic consequences of his actions.

Zelensky said he would decide immediately after his talks with Karis whether to cut diplomatic ties with Moscow.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that if Kyiv did so, it would be “an extremely undesirable scenario that would make everything even more difficult.”

And German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said that, when EU foreign ministers meet in Paris later in the day, he was confident that they would adopt a huge package of economic sanctions — in addition to the halted pipeline.

The United States and Britain were also expected to announce sanctions within hours, as European and Russian stocks tumbled and oil prices surged over news of the recognition.

Meanwhile, in the frontline town of Shchastya, 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.”

Asked what she thought of Putin’s decision to recognise the republics, Shmatkova laughed: “I have no idea what’s going on, we have no light, no electricity, nothing!”

Social media posts suggested Russian troops were heading to Donetsk and Lugansk after Putin issued decrees ordering them to assume “peacekeeping” functions in the territories.

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.

– ‘Outrageous, false claims’ –

Washington took its first measures in the early hours of Tuesday, banning US persons from any financial dealings with the breakaway territories, and said more sanctions would be announced Tuesday.

But it was unclear how far the West would go, after warning repeatedly of sanctions that would do severe damage to the Russian economy in the event of an invasion.

Russian troops were already known to be inside the two rebel regions and ordering more to deploy is unlikely to be enough for the West to trigger its worst-case response.

Putin announced he was recognising the territories, which broke away from Kyiv’s control in 2014, in a day of political theatre in Moscow.

After a dramatic televised meeting with his top government, military and security 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.

The move to recognise them, Putin said, was “a long overdue decision”.

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.

Within hours the UN Security Council held an emergency meeting, where US ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield described as “nonsense” Putin’s reference to the troops as “peacekeepers”.

“We know what they really are,” Thomas-Greenfield said, saying Putin’s address amounted to a “series of outrageous, false claims” that were aimed at “creating a pretext for war.”

Russia’s ambassador to the UN Vasily Nebenzya told the meeting that Moscow was still open to a diplomatic solution.

“Allowing a new bloodbath in the Donbas is something we do not intend to do,” he added, referring to the region encompassing Donetsk and Lugansk.

Moscow said Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was still ready for talks with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken as planned for Thursday in Geneva.

Fighting appeared to have eased overnight Tuesday, with the Ukrainian military saying there had been only three violations of the ceasefire between midnight and 7:00 am.

On Monday there had been 84 violations, with two soldiers killed and 18 wounded. AFP