Moscow marched down a path toward war Tuesday as Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered troops into Ukraine’s disputed Donbas region and suggested that he is prepared to go much further, while President Biden and America’s NATO allies unleashed a coordinated package of sweeping economic sanctions in a last-ditch bid to halt a full-blown invasion.
Mr. Biden delivered a sharp rebuke of Mr. Putin in an afternoon speech at the White House. He announced the first in what could be a series of unprecedented financial punishments targeting the Russian president, his inner circle of oligarchs, Russian banks and other power players and influential companies in Moscow.
European nations followed suit with their own round of sanctions. Germany delivered one of the biggest blows by announcing it will halt certification of Moscow’s prized Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline between the two countries.
Mr. Biden said the U.S. will reposition 800 troops along with helicopters and fighter jets from elsewhere in Europe to the Baltic states — which, like Ukraine, are former Soviet republics — to shore up defenses along NATO’s eastern border.
However, he again stressed that he is not sending U.S. troops to fight the Russians in Ukraine.
As stocks fell amid fears of war and a subsequent global energy crisis, Mr. Biden said the long-anticipated “invasion” had officially begun.
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He specifically blasted Mr. Putin’s decision Monday to formally recognize as independent states the breakaway Donetsk and Luhansk regions in eastern Ukraine. He said the move was a key step in Russia’s plan to create a false pretext for war.
“Who in the Lord’s name does Putin think gives him the right to declare new so-called countries on territory that belongs to his neighbors?” Mr. Biden said. “He’s setting up a rationale to take more territory by force. … This is the beginning of a Russian invasion of Ukraine.”
‘Starting a war’
Mr. Biden made his comments just hours after European officials said the first Russian forces had crossed into Donbas and after Russian lawmakers granted Mr. Putin permission to use military force outside their country.
One of Mr. Putin’s top deputies opened the door to permanent military bases in Donetsk and Luhansk. Such a move would cement Russia’s grip on those regions and give the Russian military much greater capability to launch ground attacks on Ukrainian territory.
There was growing fear that Mr. Putin ultimately may seek to push deeper into Ukraine to link Donetsk and Luhansk with the Crimean Peninsula, which Russia seized by military force in 2014.
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Despite getting the green light from his parliament to go to war, Mr. Putin was coy about his ultimate goal. He seemed to leave open the door to mobilizing all of the roughly 190,000 Russian troops stationed along Ukraine’s border for a full-scale invasion.
“I haven’t said that the troops will go there right now,” Mr. Putin said. “It’s impossible to forecast a specific pattern of action. It will depend on a concrete situation as it takes shape on the ground.”
To deescalate the conflict, Mr. Putin demanded that Ukraine recognize Russian sovereignty over Crimea. He also demanded that Ukraine renounce its bid to join NATO and partially demilitarize.
Those demands are nonstarters in Kyiv and within NATO. The U.S. has rejected in writing Russia’s insistence that NATO never expand to include Ukraine.
The U.S. and NATO stressed that the door to diplomacy remained open and that Mr. Putin could avert a major land war in Europe, but hope for a peaceful resolution began to fade.
At a press conference alongside Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said he was scrapping plans for a meeting this week with his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov.
Foreign policy analysts said the world is standing on the edge of catastrophe.
“We’re at one of the most dangerous periods in our history, certainly since 1945,” former Defense Secretary William S. Cohen told CNN. “The danger that we face here is that once we take a step and then Putin responds to it, the cycle tends to escalate. In the event they go into Ukraine and in the event there are wayward missiles fired at Ukrainians but end up hitting some American forces in the region, then the United States has to respond. And up the ladder we climb.”
Mr. Biden sounded a similarly pessimistic note. He called out Russia’s construction of field hospitals along the Ukrainian border and the movement of wartime supplies such as fresh blood.
“You don’t need blood unless you plan on starting a war,” the president said.
The scope of Russia’s military push into Donbas remained murky. European officials said Russian troops were in the territories but it was not yet the full-scale invasion that the West had feared for months.
Regardless, the development represented a sharp escalation. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy tried to tamp down panic among his people late Monday night.
“We are not afraid of anyone or anything. We don’t owe anyone anything. And we won’t give anything to anyone,” he said.
On Tuesday, Mr. Zelenskyy said he would call up some of the nation’s military reserves, signaling that Kyiv is preparing for a serious confrontation with Russian forces.
He said he would consider breaking formal diplomatic ties with the Kremlin. Earlier Tuesday, Kyiv recalled its ambassador in Moscow as diplomatic relations between the nations crumbled.
Russian officials did little to ease the tensions. Deputy Foreign Minister Andrey Rudenko said Moscow’s agreement with the so-called independent regions of Donetsk and Luhansk allows for permanent Russian bases on their soil.
If established, such bases would represent a major blow to Ukrainian sovereignty and would reaffirm that Russia is able to seize Ukrainian territory by force.
“So far, there hasn’t been any talk about setting up bases,” Mr. Rudenko said, according to RT.com. “But, if necessary, we will do everything that needs to be done. The agreement stipulates that.”
First wave of sanctions
At the White House, Mr. Biden rolled out the first wave in a sanctions package that, if fully implemented, would be perhaps the harshest in history.
The president said he will impose penalties “far beyond” the sanctions levied in 2014 after Russia annexed Crimea.
“If Russia goes further with this invasion, we stand prepared to go further as with sanctions,” the president said.
The sanctions announced Tuesday prohibit American financial institutions from processing transactions for Russia’s VEB and PSB banks. The move effectively cuts the banks out of transactions involving the U.S. dollar, the global reserve currency.
In 2014, the U.S. slapped sanctions on VEB that restricted U.S. individuals and companies from doing business with the institution.
During the first year, the bank sustained massive losses, leading to a multibillion-dollar bailout from the Russian government. The U.S. Treasury Department lifted those sanctions in 2019.
Mr. Biden said the Russian government would be blocked from accessing Western financing to service the country’s debt. That means it can no longer raise money from the West and cannot trade on its new debt in U.S. and European markets.
The U.S. also imposed sanctions on individual Russians, including Alexander Bortnikov, the director of Russia’s Federal Security Service, which is the successor to the KGB. His son, Denis Bortnikov, also was sanctioned, as were Petr Fradkov, chairman and CEO of PSB, and Sergei Kiriyenko, a Russian politician.
The European Union and its member states, along with Britain, rolled out coordinated sanctions, which also explicitly targeted Russian banks and wealthy individuals.
Administration officials said Russia’s largest banks could be the next targets of sweeping sanctions if Moscow further invades Ukraine.
“No Russian financial institution is safe if the invasion proceeds,” an administration official told reporters. “This is only the sharp edge of the pain we can inflict.”
Other sanctions available to the U.S. could be cutting off Russia from the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunications (SWIFT), a high-security network that connects financial institutions around the globe.
A removal of Russia would severely hamper its ability to do business with other countries. Shipments of metals, oil, gas and other commodities could stop for at least some time.
“We are not taking SWIFT off the table,” the official said.
In Berlin, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said his nation will take steps to halt the certification of the massive Nord Stream 2 Russia-to-Germany gas pipeline.
The landmark project has sparked controversy on both sides of the Atlantic. In Washington, critics have long warned that the pipeline would give Moscow far too much power over European energy supplies.
Mr. Scholz said his government will “reassess” the pipeline’s future in light of Russian military actions in Ukraine.
“That will certainly take time, if I may say so,” he said.
• This article is based in part on wire service reports.