[News analysis] Is Putin’s deployment of troops to Ukraine a prelude to war?

Posted on : 2022-02-23 17:21 KST Modified on : 2022-02-23 17:21 KST
Both the US and Ukraine have refrained from calling Russia’s actions an “invasion”
Russian President Vladimir Putin signs documents, including a decree recognizing two Russian-backed breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine as independent entities on Feb. 21, 2022. (TASS/Yonhap News)
Russian President Vladimir Putin signs documents, including a decree recognizing two Russian-backed breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine as independent entities on Feb. 21, 2022. (TASS/Yonhap News)

The situation in Ukraine has now entered a major new phase after Russian President Vladimir Putin officially recognized and approved the independence of pro-Russian separatist areas in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine on Monday. Russia also decided to deploy troops to the region in the name of “maintaining the peace.”

Talks of sanctions against Russia by major countries such as the US and Germany quickly followed. Germany decided it would halt the Nord Stream 2 Baltic Sea gas pipeline project, designed to double the flow of Russian gas direct to Germany.

All eyes are now on whether Russia’s latest move will end up being a prelude to war over Ukraine between the US and other NATO countries against Russia or whether this could mark a final turning point that could lead to a diplomatic solution.

On Monday afternoon, Putin held a National Security Council meeting at which he decided to approve the independence and sovereignty of the Donetsk People's Republic (DPR) and the Luhansk People's Republic (LPR) in eastern Ukraine, which are effectively controlled by pro-Russian armed forces.

Then, in a 55-minute-long speech broadcast on Russian television, Putin said, “I deem it necessary to make a decision that should have been made a long time ago.” Putin then proceeded to officially recognize the independence of both the DPR and LPR.

“I ask the Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation to support this decision and then to ratify the treaties of friendship and mutual assistance with the respective republics,” the Russian president said.

After signing the treaties between Russia and the two “states,” Putin ordered the deployment of troops to the region to “maintain the peace.”

It is unclear whether this move is a brinkmanship tactic that Putin is using to try and induce concessions from the US and others, or whether it is an intermediate measure that could lead to an all-out war.

If we look at the principles stipulated in international law, Russia’s latest action can be regarded as an “invasion” — an act of infringing on the territory and sovereignty of Ukraine. However, ever since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March 2014, the Donbas region has been an internationally recognized disputed region and has been a part of Russia’s de facto sphere of influence ever since.

To put it bluntly, the actual effects of an invasion are virtually nonexistent, at least in the Donbas region.

For that reason, not only the US and other Western countries, but also Ukraine, are not using the word “invasion.” This is because deeming the current circumstances an invasion could exacerbate the situation, leaving less room for diplomacy with Russia.

In a statement issued shortly after Putin's declaration, White House press secretary Jen Psaki condemned the decision as “a blatant violation of Russia's international commitments.” Psaki also shared that President Joe Biden would “soon issue an Executive Order that will prohibit new investment, trade, and financing by U.S. persons to, from, or in the so-called DNR and LNR regions of Ukraine.”

However, Psaki added, "These measures are separate from and would be in addition to the swift and severe economic measures we have been preparing in coordination with Allies and partners should Russia further invade Ukraine.”

Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, who is bearing the brunt of this entire state of affairs, characterized Russia’s actions as “a violation of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine” in a televised speech on Tuesday, but did not use the word “invasion.”

Senior White House officials also drew the line there, stating Russia’s actions did not constitute an invasion. “Russian troops moving into Donbas would not itself be a new step. Russia has had forces in the Donbas region for the past eight years,” a senior official said at a background press call. “They’re apparently now making a decision to do this in a more overt and open way.”

Noting that the US will continue to evaluate the actions taken by Russia, the official added, “We will continue to pursue diplomacy until the tanks roll."

The New York Times also reported that, by limiting the scope of sanctions to the Russian separatist region of Donbas, the US is leaving the option open for more aggressive sanctions against Moscow in case Putin decides to send troops to Ukraine. As such, there is still space for a diplomatic solution to be reached.

In other words, as long as the Russian army remains in the areas that were already under Russian influence, then it’s difficult to say that war has really broken out.

However, major European countries, which face a direct security threat from Russia, immediately announced punitive sanctions.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, for example, said on Tuesday that he would “stop the approval process for the Nord Stream 2 project.”

“The gas pipeline cannot be operated without this procedure,” Scholz said.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has also said that he would soon announce strong sanctions against Russia.

Moreover, the US and Russia once again engaged in a war of words at a UN Security Council meeting that was urgently convened on Monday night. US Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield denounced Russia’s actions in Donbas, saying of Putin’s deployment of troops to the region, “He calls them peacekeepers. This is nonsense.”

Vasily Nebenzya, the permanent representative of Russia to the UN, responded by saying that the Russian military will carry out peacekeeping operations based on the request of pro-Russian forces.

By Jung E-gil, senior staff writer

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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