War fears grow as Putin orders troops to eastern Ukraine

APTOPIX_Russia_Ukraine_Tensions_78115 Displaced civilians from the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, the territory controlled by pro-Russia separatist governments in eastern Ukraine, rest in a sport hall in Taganrog, Russia, Monday, Feb. 21, 2022. World leaders are making another diplomatic push in hopes of preventing a Russian invasion of Ukraine, even as heavy shelling continues in Ukraine's east.
APTOPIX_Ukraine_Tensions_Belarus_Border_05250 Ukrainian border guard officers patrol the Ukrainian-Belarusian state border at a checkpoint in Novi Yarylovychi, Ukraine, Monday, Feb.21, 2022.
APTOPIX_Russia_Ukraine_Tensions_99444 A woman and her child from the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, the territory controlled by pro-Russia separatist governments in eastern Ukraine, waves from a train on their way to temporary shelter in another region of Russia, at the railway station in Taganrog, Russia, Monday, Feb. 21, 2022. World leaders are making another diplomatic push in hopes of preventing a Russian invasion of Ukraine, even as heavy shelling continues in Ukraine's east.
Ukraine_Tensions_24328 Ukrainian border guards stand at a checkpoint from territory controlled by Russia-backed separatists to the territory controlled by Ukrainian forces in Novotroitske, eastern Ukraine, Monday, Feb. 21, 2022. World leaders are making another diplomatic push in hopes of preventing a Russian invasion of Ukraine, even as heavy shelling continues in Ukraine's east.
APTOPIX_Russia_Ukraine_Tensions_44689 Russian President Vladimir Putin signs a document recognizing the independence of separatist regions in eastern Ukraine in the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, Monday, Feb. 21, 2022. Russia's Putin has recognized the independence of separatist regions in eastern Ukraine, raising tensions with West.
Russia_Ukraine_Tensions_24153 People from the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, the territory controlled by a pro-Russia separatist governments in eastern Ukraine, watch Russian President Vladimir Putin's address at their temporary place in Rostov-on-Don region, Russia, Monday, Feb. 21, 2022. Putin said he would decide later Monday whether to recognize the independence of separatist regions in eastern Ukraine, a move that would ratchet up tensions with the West amid fears that Moscow could launch an invasion of Ukraine imminently.
Russia_Ukraine_Tensions_71054 People from the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, the territory controlled by a pro-Russia separatist governments in eastern Ukraine, sit a train carriage waiting to be taken to temporary residences in the Volgograd region, at the railway station in Volzhsky, Volgograd region, Russia, on Sunday, Feb. 20, 2022. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, facing a sharp spike in violence in and around territory held by Russia-backed rebels and increasingly dire warnings that Russia plans to invade, has called for Russian President Vladimir Putin to meet him and seek a resolution to the crisis.
Ukraine_Tensions_13403 A woman crosses a checkpoint from the territory controlled by Russia-backed separatists to the territory controlled by Ukrainian forces in Novotroitske, eastern Ukraine, Monday, Feb. 21, 2022. World leaders are making another diplomatic push in hopes of preventing a Russian invasion of Ukraine, even as heavy shelling continues in Ukraine’s east.
Russia_Ukraine_Tensions_31660 People from the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, the territory controlled by a pro-Russia separatist governments in eastern Ukraine, walk from a train to be taken to temporary residences in the Volgograd region, at the railway station in Volzhsky, Volgograd region, Russia, on Sunday, Feb. 20, 2022. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, facing a sharp spike in violence in and around territory held by Russia-backed rebels and increasingly dire warnings that Russia plans to invade, has called for Russian President Vladimir Putin to meet him and seek a resolution to the crisis.
Ukraine_Tensions_56439 A woman with her children crosses a checkpoint from territory controlled by Russia-backed separatists to the territory controlled by Ukrainian forces in Novotroitske, eastern Ukraine, Monday, Feb. 21, 2022. World leaders are making another diplomatic push in hopes of preventing a Russian invasion of Ukraine, even as heavy shelling continues in Ukraine’s east.
Russia_Ukraine_Tensions_51869 People from the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, the territory controlled by a pro-Russia separatist governments in eastern Ukraine, sit a train carriage waiting to be taken to temporary residences in the Volgograd region, at the railway station in Volzhsky, Volgograd region, Russia, on Sunday, Feb. 20, 2022. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, facing a sharp spike in violence in and around territory held by Russia-backed rebels and increasingly dire warnings that Russia plans to invade, has called for Russian President Vladimir Putin to meet him and seek a resolution to the crisis.
Russia_Nuclear_Drills_63424 This photo taken from video provided by the Russian Defense Ministry Press Service on Saturday, Feb. 19, 2022, shows a Zircon cruise missile being launched from a Russian navy's frigate during military drills. The Russian military on Friday announced massive drills of its strategic nuclear forces. Russian President Vladimir Putin will personally oversee Saturday's exercise, which will involve multiple practice launches of intercontinental ballistic missiles and cruise missiles, the Defense Ministry said.
Russia_Belarus_Military_Drills_45437 Two Tu-22M3 bombers escorted by Su-35 fighters of the Russian air force fly during the Union Courage-2022 Russia-Belarus military drills at the Obuz-Lesnovsky training ground in Belarus, Saturday, Feb. 19, 2022. Russia has deployed troops to its ally Belarus for sweeping joint military drills that run through Sunday, fueling Western concerns that Moscow could use the exercise to attack Ukraine from the north.
Russia_Nuclear_Drills_41394 This photo taken from video provided by the Russian Defense Ministry Press Service on Saturday, Feb. 19, 2022, shows a Yars intercontinental ballistic missile being launched from an air field during military drills. The Russian military on Friday announced massive drills of its strategic nuclear forces. Russian President Vladimir Putin will personally oversee Saturday's exercise, which will involve multiple practice launches of intercontinental ballistic missiles and cruise missiles, the Defense Ministry said.
APTOPIX_Russia_Ukraine_Tensions_18559 Russian President Vladimir Putin addresses the nation in the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, Monday, Feb. 21, 2022. Russia's Putin has recognized the independence of separatist regions in eastern Ukraine, raising tensions with West.
Ukraine_Tensions_07734 A woman walks after crossing a checkpoint from territory controlled by Russia-backed separatists to the territory controlled by Ukrainian forces in Novotroitske, eastern Ukraine, Monday, Feb. 21, 2022. World leaders are making another diplomatic push in hopes of preventing a Russian invasion of Ukraine, even as heavy shelling continues in Ukraine's east.
Ukraine_Tensions_82982 A car waits to cross a checkpoint from territory controlled by Russia-backed separatists to the territory controlled by Ukrainian forces in Novotroitske, eastern Ukraine, Monday, Feb. 21, 2022. World leaders are making another diplomatic push in hopes of preventing a Russian invasion of Ukraine, even as heavy shelling continues in Ukraine's east.
Ukraine_Tensions_81651 Anastasia Manha, 23, lulls her 2 month-old son Mykyta, where she lives with her family members, after alleged shelling by separatists forces in Novognativka, eastern Ukraine, Sunday, Feb. 20, 2022. Russia is extending military drills near Ukraine's northern borders after two days of sustained shelling along the contact line between Ukrainian soldiers and Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine. The exercises in Belarus, which borders Ukraine to the north, originally were set to end on Sunday.
Ukraine_Tensions_03718 A Ukrainian serviceman sleeps after his shift at a frontline position outside Popasna, in the Luhansk region, eastern Ukraine, Sunday, Feb. 20, 2022. Russia extended military drills near Ukraine's northern borders Sunday amid increased fears that two days of sustained shelling along the contact line between soldiers and Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine could spark an invasion. Ukraine's president appealed for a cease-fire.
Russia_Ukraine_Tensions_50339 Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during a Security Council meeting in the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, Monday, Feb. 21, 2022. Putin has convened top officials to consider recognizing the independence of separatist regions in eastern Ukraine. Such a move would ratchet up tensions with the West amid fears that the Kremlin could launch an invasion of Ukraine imminently.
Russia_Ukraine_Tensions_72930 Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, chairs a Security Council meeting in the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, Monday, Feb. 21, 2022. Putin has convened top officials to consider recognizing the independence of separatist regions in eastern Ukraine. Such a move would ratchet up tensions with the West amid fears that the Kremlin could launch an invasion of Ukraine imminently.
Ukraine_Belarus_Border_47023 A Ukrainian border guard officer checks a car at the Ukrainian Belarusian state border checkpoint Novi Yarylovychi, Ukraine, Monday, Feb.21, 2022.
Russia_Ukraine_Tensions_45409 A woman and her child from the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, the territory controlled by pro-Russia separatist governments in eastern Ukraine, waves from a train waiting to be taken to temporary residences in other regions of Russia, at the railway station in Taganrog, Russia, Monday, Feb. 21, 2022. World leaders are making another diplomatic push in hopes of preventing a Russian invasion of Ukraine, even as heavy shelling continues in Ukraine's east.
APTOPIX_Ukraine_Tensions_81651 Anastasia Manha, 23, lulls her 2 month-old son Mykyta, where she lives with her family members, after alleged shelling by separatists forces in Novognativka, eastern Ukraine, Sunday, Feb. 20, 2022. Russia is extending military drills near Ukraine's northern borders after two days of sustained shelling along the contact line between Ukrainian soldiers and Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine. The exercises in Belarus, which borders Ukraine to the north, originally were set to end on Sunday.
Ukraine_Tensions_37517 A municipal worker prepares to put up a Donetsk People Republic flag on a building in Donetsk, the territory controlled by pro-Russian militants, eastern Ukraine, Monday, Feb. 21, 2022. World leaders are making another diplomatic push in hopes of preventing a Russian invasion of Ukraine, even as heavy shelling continues in Ukraine's east.
Ukraine_Belarus_Border_21150 A Ukrainian border guard officer stands at the Ukrainian Belarusian state border checkpoint Novi Yarylovychi, Ukraine, Monday, Feb.21, 2022.
APTOPIX_Ukraine_Tensions_65925 People wave Russian national flags celebrating the recognizing the independence in the center of Donetsk, the territory controlled by pro-Russian militants, eastern Ukraine, late Monday, Feb. 21, 2022. In a fast-moving political theater, Russian President Vladimir Putin has moved quickly to recognize the independence of separatist regions in eastern Ukraine in a show of defiance against the West amid fears of Russian invasion in Ukraine.
Russia_Ukraine_Tensions_15893 People from the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, the territory controlled by a pro-Russia separatist governments in eastern Ukraine, watch Russian President Vladimir Putin's address at their temporary place in Rostov-on-Don region, Russia, Monday, Feb. 21, 2022. Putin said he would decide later Monday whether to recognize the independence of separatist regions in eastern Ukraine, a move that would ratchet up tensions with the West amid fears that Moscow could launch an invasion of Ukraine imminently.
Belgium_Europe_Ukraine_Tensions_69970 Ukraine's Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba speaks during a media conference on the sidelines of a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Brussels, Monday, Feb. 21, 2022. The European Union's top diplomat, foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, welcomed the prospect of a summit but said that should diplomacy fail the 27-nation has finalized its package of sanctions for use if Putin orders an invasion.
Belgium_Europe_Ukraine_Tensions_10967 German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, right, speaks with Poland's Foreign Minister Zbiegniew Rau, left, and European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell during a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Brussels, Monday, Feb. 21, 2022. The European Union's top diplomat, foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, welcomed the prospect of a summit but said that should diplomacy fail the 27-nation has finalized its package of sanctions for use if Putin orders an invasion.
Ukraine_Tensions_48546 People get on a van after crossing a checkpoint from territory controlled by Russia-backed separatists to the territory controlled by Ukrainian forces in Novotroitske, eastern Ukraine, Monday, Feb. 21, 2022. World leaders are making another diplomatic push in hopes of preventing a Russian invasion of Ukraine, even as heavy shelling continues in Ukraine's east.
Russia_Ukraine_Tensions_44779 Displaced civilians from the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, the territory controlled by pro-Russia separatist governments in eastern Ukraine, rest in a sport hall in Taganrog, Russia, Monday, Feb. 21, 2022. World leaders are making another diplomatic push in hopes of preventing a Russian invasion of Ukraine, even as heavy shelling continues in Ukraine's east.
Ukraine_Tensions_38372 In this image provided by the United Nations, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield speaks during an emergency U.N. Security Council meeting on Ukraine, at the U.N. headquarters, Monday, Feb. 21, 2022.
Ukraine_Tensions_24804 People walk near a checkpoint between territory controlled by Russia-backed separatists and the territory controlled by Ukrainian forces in Novotroitske, eastern Ukraine, Monday, Feb. 21, 2022. World leaders are making another diplomatic push in hopes of preventing a Russian invasion of Ukraine, even as heavy shelling continues in Ukraine's east.
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MOSCOW (AP) — A long-feared Russian invasion of Ukraine appeared to be imminent Monday, if not already underway, with Russian President Vladimir Putin ordering forces into separatist regions of eastern Ukraine.

A vaguely worded decree signed by Putin did not say if troops were on the move, and it cast the order as an effort to “maintain peace.” But it appeared to dash the slim remaining hopes of averting a major conflict in Europe that could cause massive casualties, energy shortages on the continent and economic chaos around the globe.

Putin’s directive came hours after he recognized the separatist regions in a rambling, fact-bending discourse on European history. The move paved the way to provide them military support, antagonizing Western leaders who regard it as a breach of world order, and set off a frenzied scramble by the U.S. and others to respond.

Underscoring the urgency, the U.N. Security Council held a rare nighttime emergency meeting on Monday at the request of Ukraine, the U.S. and other countries. Undersecretary-General Rosemary DiCarlo opened the session with a warning that “the risk of major conflict is real and needs to be prevented at all costs.”

Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, sought to project calm, telling the country: “We are not afraid of anyone or anything. We don’t owe anyone anything. And we won’t give anything to anyone.” His foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, would be in Washington on Tuesday to meet with Secretary of State Antony Blinken, the State Department said.

The White House issued an executive order to prohibit U.S. investment and trade in the separatist regions, and additional measures — likely sanctions — were to be announced Tuesday. Those sanctions are independent of what Washington has prepared in the event of a Russian invasion, according to a senior administration official who briefed reporters on the condition of anonymity.

The State Department, meanwhile, said U.S. personnel in Lviv — in Ukraine’s far west — would spend the night in Poland but return to Ukraine to continue their diplomatic work and emergency consular services. It again urged any American citizens in Ukraine to leave immediately.

The developments came during a spike in skirmishes in the eastern regions that Western powers believe Russia could use as a pretext for an attack on the Western-looking democracy that has defied Moscow’s attempts to pull it back into its orbit.

Putin justified his decision in a far-reaching, pre-recorded speech blaming NATO for the current crisis and calling the U.S.-led alliance an existential threat to Russia. Sweeping through more than a century of history, he painted today’s Ukraine as a modern construct that is inextricably linked to Russia. He charged that Ukraine had inherited Russia’s historic lands and after the Soviet collapse was used by the West to contain Russia.

“I consider it necessary to take a long-overdue decision: To immediately recognize the independence and sovereignty of Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic,” Putin said.

Afterward he signed matching decrees recognizing the two regions’ independence, eight years after fighting erupted between Russia-backed separatists and Ukrainian forces, and called on lawmakers to approve measures paving the way for military support.

Until now, Ukraine and the West have accused Russia of supporting the separatists with arms and troops, but Moscow has denied that, saying that Russians who fought there were volunteers.

At an earlier meeting of Putin’s Security Council, a stream of top officials argued for recognizing the regions’ independence. One slipped up and said he favored including them as part of Russia — but Putin quickly corrected him.

Recognizing the separatist regions’ independence is likely to be popular in Russia, where many share Putin’s worldview. Russian state media released images of people in Donetsk setting off fireworks, waving large Russian flags and playing Russia’s national anthem.

Ukrainians in Kyiv, meanwhile, bristled at the move.

“Why should Russia recognize (the rebel-held regions)? If neighbors come to you and say, ‘This room will be ours,’ would you care about their opinion or not? It’s your flat, and it will be always your flat,” said Maria Levchyshchyna, a 48-year-old painter in the Ukrainian capital. “Let them recognize whatever they want. But in my view, it can also provoke a war, because normal people will fight for their country.”

With an estimated 150,000 Russian troops massed on three sides of Ukraine, the U.S. has warned that Moscow has already decided to invade. Still, President Joe Biden and Putin tentatively agreed to a meeting brokered by French President Emmanuel Macron in a last-ditch effort to avoid war.

If Russia moves in, the meeting will be off, but the prospect of a face-to-face summit resuscitated hopes in diplomacy to prevent a conflict that could devastate Ukraine and cause huge economic damage across Europe, which is heavily dependent on Russian energy.

Russia says it wants Western guarantees that NATO won’t allow Ukraine and other former Soviet countries to join as members — and Putin said Monday that a simple moratorium on Ukraine’s accession wouldn’t be enough. Moscow has also demanded the alliance halt weapons deployments to Ukraine and roll back its forces from Eastern Europe — demands flatly rejected by the West.

Macron’s office said Biden and Putin had “accepted the principle of such a summit,” to be followed by a broader meeting that would include other “relevant stakeholders to discuss security and strategic stability in Europe.”

U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan, meanwhile, said the administration has always been ready to talk to avert a war — but was also prepared to respond to any attack.

During Monday night’s emergency meeting, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, said Putin “has put before the world a choice” and it “must not look away” because “history tells us that looking the other way in the face of such hostility will be a far more costly path.”

China’s U.N. Ambassador Zhang Jun called for restraint and a diplomatic solution to the crisis.

Putin’s announcement shattered a 2015 peace deal signed in Minsk requiring Ukraine to offer broad self-rule to the rebel regions, a major diplomatic coup for Moscow.

That deal was resented by many in Ukraine who saw it as a capitulation, a blow to the country’s integrity and a betrayal of national interests. Putin and other officials argued Monday that the Ukrainian government has shown no appetite for implementing it.

Over 14,000 people have been killed since conflict erupted in the eastern industrial heartland of Donbas in 2014, shortly after Moscow annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula.

Potential flashpoints multiplied. Sustained shelling continued Monday along the tense line of contact separating the opposing forces. Unusually, Russia said it had fended off an “incursion” from Ukraine — which Ukrainian officials denied. And Russia decided to prolong military drills in Belarus, which could offer a staging ground for an attack on the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv.

Ukraine and the separatist rebels have traded blame for cease-fire violations with hundreds of explosions recorded daily.

While separatists have charged that Ukrainian forces were firing on residential areas, Associated Press journalists reporting from several towns and villages in Ukrainian-held territory along the line of contact have not witnessed any notable escalation from the Ukrainian side and have documented signs of intensified shelling by the separatists that destroyed homes and ripped up roads.

Some residents of the main rebel-held city of Donetsk described sporadic shelling by Ukrainian forces, but they added that it wasn’t on the same scale as earlier in the conflict.

The separatist authorities said Monday that at least four civilians were killed by Ukrainian shelling over the past 24 hours, and several others were wounded. Ukraine’s military said two Ukrainian soldiers were killed over the weekend, and another serviceman was wounded Monday.

Ukrainian military spokesman Pavlo Kovalchyuk insisted that Ukrainian forces weren’t returning fire.

In the village of Novognativka on the Ukraine government-controlled side, 60-year-old Ekaterina Evseeva said the shelling was worse than at the height of fighting early in the conflict.

“We are on the edge of nervous breakdowns,” she said, her voice trembling. “And there is nowhere to run.”

In another worrying sign, the Russian military said it killed five suspected “saboteurs” who crossed from Ukraine into Russia’s Rostov region and also destroyed two armored vehicles and took a Ukrainian serviceman prisoner. Ukrainian Border Guard spokesman Andriy Demchenko dismissed the claim as “disinformation.”

With fears of invasion high, the U.S. administration sent a letter to the United Nations human rights chief claiming that Moscow has compiled a list of Ukrainians to be killed or sent to detention camps after the invasion. The letter, first reported by The New York Times, was obtained by the AP.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the claim was a lie and no such list exists.

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Karmanau reported from Kyiv, Ukraine, and Cook from Brussels. Lori Hinnant in Kyiv; Angela Charlton in Paris; Zeke Miller and Aamer Madhani in Munich, Germany; Geir Moulson in Berlin; Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations and Eric Tucker, Ellen Knickmeyer, Robert Burns, Matthew Lee and Darlene Superville in Washington contributed to this report.

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Follow AP’s coverage of the Ukraine crisis at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine

Copyright © 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or redistributed.

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