BERLIN – Russia’s armed forces have been ordered to enter Ukrainian territory, following Moscow’s official recognition of the independence of the Luhansk and Donetsk People’s Republics (LNR and DNR), two breakaway statelets in eastern Ukraine.
On 21 February, Russian President Vladimir Putin chaired a televised meeting of the Russia’s Security Council, during which a succession of top Kremlin officials publicly declared their support for recognition of the LNR and DNR. The two statelets claim the entirety of the Ukrainian districts of Luhansk and Donetsk respectively; in reality they only hold about half. Following the meeting on Monday, Putin recognised the LNR and DNR, thus paving the way for the entry of Russian troops.
Whether the troops will stop at the current line of contact with Ukrainian forces or attempt to conquer the whole of the territory the LNR and DNR claim is still unclear. An attack on Ukrainian forces might be justified by Moscow as the liberation of the occupied territories of two sovereign states which are partly occupied by another.
“It is crucially important for the Russian government to at least maintain the impression that whatever they are doing is in full accordance with international law,” said Lukas Wahden, a researcher at the German Association for East European Studies, a Berlin-based think tank. “It is illegal to invade a country and annex its territories, but it is arguably lawful to recognise a breakaway state’s claim to statehood, seek recognition for that state, and subsequently defend the interests of that state in some way.”
Russia’s proxies have been escalating tensions for days, baselessly accusing Ukrainian forces of atrocities and of planning an offensive to retake separatist-controlled territory. On 18 February, the separatist authorities of eastern Ukraine announced a mass evacuation of civilians to Russia. The move came after a record number of ceasefire violations at the line of contact between separatist forces and the Ukrainian army.
The military objectives of the Russian campaign remain unclear. US intelligence has previously suggested that the goal of a Russian attack on Ukraine could include regime change in Kyiv, attempting to force Ukraine away from seeking membership of the Nato alliance.
Putin issued an order for “peacekeeping” forces to enter the territory of the self-proclaimed statelets on 21 February. The Russian and Belarusian militaries had been conducting joint military exercises in Belarus as part of “Allied Resolve,” which were scheduled to last from 10-20 February, though the Russian troops remained in Belarus after that date. Moscow had been massing troops on its border with Ukraine since at least November last year, in what the US characterised as preparations for an invasion.
Western countries have begun imposing sanctions on Russia following the recognition of the LNR and DNR, though their full extent remains to be determined and may depend on how far Russian forces push into Ukraine.
The US and EU have said they are willing to impose far-reaching measures on Russia, though some public disagreements persist, including over Nord Stream 2, a pipeline scheduled to connect Russia and Germany. European leaders fear that Russia may use natural gas exports to Europe to retaliate against sanctions.