Ukraine crisis: Putin sends Russian tanks, hardware into Donetsk - report

The UN Security Council will hold an emergency meeting on the crisis Tuesday morning.

 Russian servicemen drive tanks during military exercises in the Leningrad Region, Russia, in this handout picture released February 14, 2022. (photo credit: Russian Defence Ministry/Handout via REUTERS)
Russian servicemen drive tanks during military exercises in the Leningrad Region, Russia, in this handout picture released February 14, 2022.
(photo credit: Russian Defence Ministry/Handout via REUTERS)

Columns of military vehicles including tanks were seen in the early hours of Tuesday on the outskirts of Donetsk, the capital of one of two breakaway east Ukraine regions after Russian President Vladimir Putin recognized them as independent states.

The Reuters reporter saw a column of about five tanks on the edge of the city and two more in another part of town.

Putin orders 'peacekeeping' troops to Ukraine after recognizing breakaway regions (credit: EYEPRESS via REUTERS)

No insignia were visible, but the appearance of the tanks came hours after Putin signed friendship treaties with the two separatist regions and ordered Russian troops to deploy on what Moscow called a peacekeeping operation.

Reuters reporters in Donetsk had not seen tanks on the streets in previous days.

Putin recognized the regions as independent on Monday and ordered the Russian army to launch the operation into the area, upping the ante in a crisis the West fears could unleash a major war. 

Footage of Russian troops and tanks in Donetsk has been shared on social media by Ukrainian lawmaker Lisa Yasko.

"Russian social media channels spread this video of tanks in Donetsk," Yasko wrote. "God, please don’t allow this war again… Sanctions NOW!"

The authenticity of the post was confirmed by a CNN analyst.

Another video was shared by Yasko, which was first shared over Russian social media and later by a journalist for the French outlet Le Figaro, which she claims depicts military equipment being shipped to the breakaway regions.

The White House said it fully expects Russia to take military actions, with all the signs on the ground pointing that way and not to diplomacy. An intelligence official speaking to CNN claimed that Russian troops could be in the Moscow-backed regions of eastern Ukraine by the evening.

Putin told Russia's defense ministry to deploy troops into the two regions to "keep the peace" in a decree issued shortly after he announced recognition for Russia-backed separatists there, drawing US and European condemnation and vows of new sanctions.

Facts of the deal

Russia has acquired the right to build military bases in Ukraine's two breakaway regions under treaties signed by Putin with their separatist leaders.

Under the two identical friendship treaties, submitted by Putin for ratification by parliament, Moscow has the right to build bases in the separatist regions and they, on paper, can do the same in Russia.

The parties commit to defend each other and sign separate agreements on military cooperation and on recognition of each other's borders.

The border issue is significant because the separatists claim parts of the two regions that are currently under Ukrainian control. A Russian parliament member and former Donetsk political leader told Reuters last month that the separatists would look to Russia to help them wrest control of these areas.

The 31-point treaties also say Russia and the breakaway statelets will work to integrate their economies. Both of them are former industrial areas in need of massive support to rebuild after eight years of war with Ukrainian government forces.

The 10-year treaties are automatically renewable for additional five-year periods unless one of the parties gives notice to withdraw. 

Behind the deal

It was not immediately clear whether the Russian military action was the start of an invasion of Ukraine that the United States and its allies have warned about for weeks. There was no word on the size of the force Putin was dispatching, when they would cross the border and exactly what their mission would be.

In a lengthy televised address, Putin, looking visibly angry, described Ukraine as an integral part of Russia's history, that eastern Ukraine was ancient Russian lands and that he was confident the Russian people would support his decision.

Defying Western warnings against such a move, Putin had announced his decision earlier in phone calls to the leaders of Germany and France, both of whom voiced disappointment, the Kremlin said.

World reactions

Moscow's action may well torpedo a last-minute bid for a summit with US President Joe Biden to prevent Russia from invading Ukraine. The rouble extended its losses as Putin spoke, at one point sliding beyond 80 per dollar.

Biden will issue an executive order soon prohibiting "new investment, trade, and financing by US persons to, from, or in" the two breakaway regions, the White House said. It will "also provide authority to impose sanctions on any person determined to operate in those areas of Ukraine," White House spokesperson Jen Psaki said in a statement.

Psaki said measures being rolled out in response to Putin's decree were separate from sanctions the United States and its allies have been readying if Russia invades its neighbor to the west.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the executive order "is designed to prevent Russia from profiting off of this blatant violation of international law."

Biden reaffirmed support for Ukraine's sovereignty in a call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and also spoke to French President Emmanuel Macron and Germany Chancellor Olaf Scholz.

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said European Union countries have agreed to impose a limited set of sanctions "targeting those who are responsible" for Russia's recognition of the rebel regions.

British foreign minister Liz Truss said in a Twitter post that on Tuesday the government will announce new sanctions on Russia in response to Putin's decision.

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson told Zelenskiy that an invasion was a real possibility in the coming days or even hours, and that sanctions will go into effect on Tuesday.

The United Nations Security Council is set to hold an emergency meeting on Russia and Ukraine on Tuesday morning.

The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) claims that there have been more than 3,000 ceasefire violations in east Ukraine, according to AFP.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg accused Russia of continuing to fuel the conflict in eastern Ukraine and "trying to stage a pretext" for a further invasion. Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014.

China's embassy in Ukraine warned Chinese nationals and businesses there against venturing to "unstable" areas, but stopped short of telling them to consider leaving the country as many other nations have advised their own citizens.

"At present, the situation in eastern Ukraine has undergone major changes," the Chinese embassy said in a statement on its website.

"The Chinese Embassy in Ukraine reminds Chinese citizens and Chinese-funded enterprises in Ukraine to pay attention to the safety notices issued locally and do not go to unstable areas."

Status of diplomacy

In his address, Putin delved into history as far back as the Ottoman empire and as recent as the tensions over NATO's eastward expansion – a major irritant for Moscow in the present crisis.

With his decision, Putin brushed off Western warnings that such a step would be illegal, would kill off peace negotiations and would trigger sanctions against Moscow.

"I deem it necessary to make a decision that should have been made a long time ago – to immediately recognize the independence and sovereignty of the Donetsk People's Republic and the Luhansk People's Republic," Putin said.

"If Ukraine was to join NATO it would serve as a direct threat to the security of Russia," he had said earlier.

Both developments fit a pattern repeatedly predicted by Western governments, which accuse Russia of preparing to fabricate a pretext to invade by blaming Kyiv for attacks and relying on pleas for help from separatist proxies.

Moscow has said repeatedly it has no such plans.

Hours earlier, Macron gave hope of a diplomatic solution, saying Putin and Biden had agreed in principle to meet.

But the Kremlin said there were no specific plans for a summit. The White House said Biden had accepted the meeting "in principle" but only "if an invasion hasn't happened."

Washington says Russia has massed a force numbering 169,000-190,000 troops in the region, including the separatists in the breakaway regions, and could invade within days.

In a speech early Tuesday morning, Zelenskiy said the presence of Russian troops merely legalizes the presence of the troops that have been there since 2014. 

He vowed that Ukraine's borders will remain as they are and slammed Russia's actions as a violation of its sovereignty. 

Ukraine was assured of a "resolute and united" response from the European Union against Russia, Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said on Tuesday after speaking to the EU's top diplomat Josep Borrell.

"We share the same assessment of Russia's illegal decision," he said.

Kuleba said he will meet with Blinken in Washington over the deepening crisis in Ukraine after the pair spoke again.

"Taking into account the dynamics of the situation, I had another call with @SecBlinken ahead of our tomorrow's meeting in Washington, DC," he wrote on Twitter.

"Key topic: sanctions. I underscored the need to impose tough sanctions on Russia in response to its illegal actions."

Several nations have called on their citizens to leave the region, with many having moved their embassies out of Kyiv to more western cities such as Lviv. Biden also ordered all US State Department personnel to leave Kyiv, according to Bloomberg. The US embassy already moved from Kyiv to Lviv, but is now moving to Poland.

Biden also reportedly urged Zelenskiy to evacuate to Lviv, according to US media reports.