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As Putin sends troops into Donbas, White House avoids the ‘I’ word

Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered troops into the breakaway Luhansk and Donetsk regions Monday night, following his decision earlier in the day to recognize those regions as independent republics, and no longer part of Ukraine.

The troops will carry out “peacekeeping functions” in the two regions, according to the order.

As Russian armored columns were seen entering the two areas, it was clear that the order will immediately reconfigure the European security landscape as capitals across the continent scramble to respond to the possibility that has long faced them: a large-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine.

“This was a speech to the Russian people to justify war,” a senior administration official told reporters Monday.

The official, who requested anonymity in order to discuss sensitive issues, wouldn’t call the move an invasion, however, saying “Russian troops moving into Donbas would not itself be a new step. Russia has had forces in the Donbas for the past eight years.”

It’s an important distinction, as an invasion would trigger sanctions on Russia and imperil diplomatic meetings that were set on the condition that Russia not invade Ukraine.

Still, the official said they “strongly suspect sanctions activity” from the Biden administration on Tuesday, in addition to the penalties that President Joe Biden imposed via executive order on Monday night.

The Biden administration’s posture was met with immediate pushback from Republicans on Capitol Hill, who argued that the full slate of sanctions should be triggered once Russian troops cross into Ukraine. They noted that this was the White House’s own definition of an “invasion” of the country.

“With reports that Putin is now sending troops into the regions of Donetsk and Luhansk under the guise of ‘peacekeepers,’ now is not the time for symbolic pinpricks that will serve only to embolden Putin and endanger our friends in Ukraine,” Reps. Michael McCaul (R-Texas) and Mike Rogers (R-Ala.) said in a joint statement.

“Now is the time for President Biden to impose sanctions that strike at the heart of the Russian economy, and permanently end Nord Stream 2 once and for all, as he promised the world he would do,” added the lawmakers, who serve as the top Republicans on the House Foreign Affairs and Armed Services committees, respectively.

McCaul and Rogers called the sanctions announced Monday “the definition of impotence,” while Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), said they were “wholly unequal to this moment.”

After announcing he would recognize the regions, Putin met with Denis Pushilin and Leonid Pasechnik, leaders of the Russian-backed rebel forces and signed documents pledging cooperation and aid.

The move caps off weeks of desperate diplomacy between western governments and Putin’s regime, including multiple trips to Moscow by European leaders.

Less than 24 hours before Putin gave the order for the troops to move in, there had been an agreement “in principle” between Putin and Biden to continue talks. Secretary of State Antony Blinken was set to hash out the details with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov later this week. It’s unclear where those plans stand now, but the armored vehicles pouring across the Russian border Monday evening may have slammed the door shut on any further diplomacy.

The remaining U.S. embassy staff currently based in Lviv have relocated to Poland for a night, a move described by Secretary of State Antony Blinken as the U.S. taking “prudent precautions.”

It wasn’t just Republicans who demanded harsher sanctions in response to Putin’s latest moves.

“To be clear, if any additional Russian troops or proxy forces cross into Donbas, the Biden administration and our European allies must not hesitate in imposing crushing sanctions. There must be tangible, far-reaching and substantial costs for Russia in response to this unjustified act,” Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) said.

“Despite repeated efforts to open the door to diplomacy, Vladimir Putin has chosen the path of conflict,” Menendez added.

Other Democrats, too, seemed to up the pressure on Biden to act with more severe sanctions.

“The time for taking action to impose significant costs on President Putin and the Kremlin starts now,” said Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), a trusted Biden confidant. “We must swiftly join our NATO allies and partners in the European Union to impose forceful new sanctions on Russia, on all those responsible for this dangerous violation of international law, and to provide emergency support for Ukraine.”

As the evening progressed, statements flooded in from European capitals demanding swift and harsh sanctions against Russia.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba demanded a meeting of the U.N. Security Council, and German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said “years of effort” focused on diplomacy “are being destroyed deliberately and without any comprehensible reason.”

U.N. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield called Putin’s actions “an unprovoked violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity,” and threw support behind Ukraine’s call for a Security Council meeting.

“Russia’s announcement is nothing more than theater, apparently designed to create a pretext for a further invasion of Ukraine,” Thomas-Greenfield added.

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