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U.N. leaders condemn Putin after he orders 'peacekeepers' to Ukraine

U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Linda Thomas-Greenfield, far right, speaks during an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council on the Ukraine crisis, in New York on Monday.
TIMOTHY A. CLARY
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AFP via Getty Images
U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Linda Thomas-Greenfield, far right, speaks during an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council on the Ukraine crisis, in New York on Monday.

Updated February 21, 2022 at 10:54 PM ET

Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday recognized two regions in Ukraine as independent and ordered Russian troops to conduct "peacekeeping" operations there, raising fears that Russia is paving the way for an attack. The move set off a round of international condemnation and further isolation at the United Nations, sanctions from the United States, and a promise from the United Kingdom that it, too, would sanction Russia.

The Biden administration announced a first round of limited economic sanctions, with more to follow Tuesday.

Putin's declaration named the two regions the Luhansk People's Republic and the Donetsk People's Republic. Both are unrecognized territories carved out by Russian-backed separatists in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine after fighting broke out there against Ukrainian government forces in 2014.

The announcement is a serious escalation that effectively kills the Minsk accords, which set out a series of military and political steps designed to resolve the status of the two breakaway regions and end the 8-year-old conflict there.

The United Nations Security Council held an emergency meeting Monday evening in response, where ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, U.S. representative to the U.N., said Putin had "torn the Minsk agreement to shreds" and warned that Russian forces escalating further would create "a devastating loss of life" and cause a refugee crisis across Europe.

She warned that Putin's ambitions reach beyond Ukraine, and that he has asserted Russia's claims to all former territory of the former Russian Empire.

"Putin wants the world to travel back in time. To a time before the United Nations," she said. "To a time when empires ruled the world. But the rest of the world has moved forward. It is not 1919. It is 2022."

Russia's Vasily Nebenzya in turn accused Ukraine of aggression and of shelling civilians in the Donbas conflict, while Ukrainian representative Sergiy Kyslytsya said Russia's recognition of the regions was "illegal and illegitimate."

"Negotiation is the only way to address the existing differences," said Rosemary DiCarlo, the United Nations chief political officer. "We call on all relevant actors to focus their efforts on the immediate cessation of hostilities."

The meeting adjourned without any collective statement or action.

Speaking to his country's citizens earlier, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Putin's actions were "a violation of the sovereignty and territorial integrity" of Ukraine.

In a highly staged meeting earlier Monday, Putin met with members of his security council, who urged the president to take this action, citing Ukrainian intransigence on implementing the Minsk accords.

The Russian-backed rebel leaders of the self-proclaimed republics urged Putin earlier on Monday to recognize their independence and provide security guarantees.

The U.S. has said Russia has amassed up to 190,000 troops on its border with Ukraine.

President Biden will issue an executive order to "prohibit new investment, trade, and financing by U.S. persons to, from, or in the so-called DNR and LNR regions of Ukraine," according to a statement from White House press secretary Jen Psaki. The statement says that the order will allow for sanctions to be imposed on anyone violating the order and that the departments of State and Treasury will share more details shortly.

Psaki says the administration will have more announcements soon "related to today's blatant violation of Russia's international commitments" that are separate from the economic consequences to be imposed if Russia invades Ukraine.

British Foreign Secretary Lizz Truss said the United Kingdom would announce on Tuesday its own sanctions on Russia for its "breach of international law and attack on Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity."

NATO countries promise sanctions

Biden and Zelenskyy held a 35-minute call Monday afternoon, the White House said, and Biden also convened a call with French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz.

Scholz and Macron also spoke with Putin on Monday. Scholz said in a statement that he told Putin that any such move would amount to a one-sided breach of the Minsk agreements and urged Putin to pull Russian troops from the Ukraine-Russia border.

Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, called the recognition of the territories "a blatant violation of international law, the territorial integrity of Ukraine and the Minsk agreements." The European Union promised sanctions "against those involved in this illegal act."

U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson called Putin's announcement "yet another indication that things are moving in the wrong direction in Ukraine." The U.K. will "continue to do everything we can to stand by the people of Ukraine," he said, including preparing sanctions and fortifying NATO's eastern flank.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres considers Russia's decision "to be a violation of the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine," according to a U.N. statement. Guterres urged all parties to focus on a cessation of hostilities, protecting civilians and continued diplomacy.

Russia has claimed that the situation along the contact line in Donbas has been deteriorating in recent days and Putin has said that Ukraine is committing a "genocide" there and that him sending in troops would be to supposedly save its people. The U.S. has described these claims as a false-flag operation aimed at creating a pretext for an invasion.

White House says Russian troops in Donbas 'would not itself be a new step'

At the same time that the U.S. denounced the Russian move, the White House downplayed the significance, telling reporters that Russian forces moving into the Donbas would not be a further invasion of Ukraine because Russian troops have been in the region since 2014, despite denials from Moscow.

"Russian troops moving into the Donbas would not itself be a new step. Russia has had forces in the Donbas region for the last eight years," a senior administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told reporters on a briefing call Monday evening. "Their narrative has been that they do not. Our certain knowledge has been that they have."

The official said that the U.S. views Russian aggression playing out as it has anticipated but said the U.S. pledges "to pursue diplomacy until the tanks roll."

"Unfortunately, the sequence of events that Secretary [of State Antony] Blinken laid out at the U.N. Security Council appears to be proceeding exactly as we predicted," the official said, referring to false-flag events, Putin's security council meeting and the declaration of independent republics in eastern Ukraine.

James Doubek, Rob Schmitz and Peter Granitz contributed reporting.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Laurel Wamsley is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She reports breaking news for NPR's digital coverage, newscasts, and news magazines, as well as occasional features. She was also the lead reporter for NPR's coverage of the 2019 Women's World Cup in France.