Russian President Vladimir Putin’s move to recognize breakaway eastern Ukrainian territories as independent appears to be the opening salvo of a larger potential military operation targeting Ukraine, nearly a dozen US and western officials tell CNN.
“This is Potemkin politics,” a senior administration official told reporters on Monday. “President Putin is accelerating the very conflict that he's created.”
The US expects Russian troops could move into the Donbas region of Ukraine as soon as Monday evening or Tuesday, after Russian President Vladimir Putin recognized the two pro-Moscow territories as independent, a senior US official familiar with latest intelligence tells CNN.
The US is still seeing preparations for a potential invasion including loading amphibious ships and loading equipment for airborne units.
The US and western officials said Putin’s decision to sign the decree, which proclaims that the Russia-backed Donetsk People's Republic (DNR) and Luhansk People's Republic (LNR) are independent territories, has given Putin the justification he wanted to send in Russian forces and potentially wage a broader assault on Ukraine in the name of protecting the separatist regions.
The Kremlin announced on Monday evening that Russia would be sending “peacekeeping” forces into the breakaway territories, confirming many officials’ worst fears.
“That’s your invasion,” said one European diplomat. “If we don’t act on this as we have said we would in case of a further invasion, we will have seriously undermined our credibility,” the diplomat said.
Still, in a call with reporters, the senior administration official suggested to reporters that the mere movement of new Russian “peacekeeping” forces into eastern Ukraine would not itself trigger the full sanctions package the administration has threatened in the event of a Russian invasion, noting that “there have been Russian forces present in these areas” since 2014.
“So we're going to be looking very closely at what they do over the coming hours and days and our response will be measured, according, again, to their actions,” the official said. The official said “it now looks like Russia will be operating openly in that region, and we will be responding accordingly.”
The official would not identify what line Russian troops would have to cross in Eastern Ukraine to be considered a new invasion.
The White House said on Monday that Biden would impose new financial restrictions on the breakaway republics, and a senior administration official told reporters that more actions would be announced on Tuesday. But some officials say the penalties do not go far enough — especially considering Biden’s claim last month that if “any assembled Russian units move across the Ukrainian border, that is an invasion” and “will be met with severe and coordinated economic response.”
CNN's Oren Liebermann, Katie Bo Lillis and Sebastian Shukla contributed to this report.