The situation in eastern Ukraine is becoming clear at the moment, even as the situation in the remainder of the region remains fluid. Around 4 PM local time (Eastern Standard) Vladimir Putin ordered the Russian military forces to enter the breakaway republics in eastern Ukraine and conduct ‘peacekeeping operations.’ According to multiple sources, Russian forces have already begun entering both the LPR (Luhansk People’s Republic) and DPR (Donetsk People’s Republic). The start of this peacekeeping mission turns Minsk II to ash.
The Ukrainian government has been very slow in responding to what’s developing in the east, but it is imperative that Kiev release a statement soon. Meanwhile, the United States and its European allies are preparing sanctions packages. Latvia is calling for sanctions to be placed on Russia as punishment for the 30,000 troops it has in Belarus. Russia’s moves today are being correctly labeled as an annexation and attempt to redraw the borders of Ukraine. Only in a much more overt manner when compared to the Crimea annexation in 2014.
There is some news coming out of Donbas from independent sources, however, this will likely not last. I expect the region to be locked down electronically very soon, limiting the amount of information coming out of there.
As I said before, things are very fluid in the east now so I will probably put up a new update by 8 PM.
Vladimir Putin has announced his intention to formally recognize the independence of Donetsk & Luhansk, the breakaway areas of eastern Ukraine now controlled by pro-Russian separatists. In an address this afternoon, Putin did not discuss the Luhansk People’s Republic/Donetsk People’s Republic at length. Instead, he took the opportunity to lay the groundwork to justify a Russian invasion of Ukraine, most likely in the coming days. The speech was peppered with historical grievances and explanations of why Ukraine is not a sovereign nation-state.
Putin’s speech is still being digested at this hour, but the statement released by the Kremlin on recognizing independence of the self-declared republics in eastern Ukraine elicited a swift response from European leaders. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson claimed such a move will “plainly be in breach of international law.” Germany and France have also condemned Putin’s apparent intentions.
There is much happening across Europe, Ukraine and Russia right now and I was caught in transit when all of these events started to happen. I’ll post a more thorough update between 5 and 6 PM Eastern Standard Time.
Separatist officials in eastern Ukraine have warned of a ‘large-scale Ukrainian attack’ coming soon and have called for the evacuation of women, children and the elderly to start immediately. The Ukrainian government countered with a statement calling the attack rumor false and nothing more than a lie designed to give Russia a pretext to invade. As this back and forth was taking place, Russian media has been releasing reports that claim Ukraine is stepping up attacks on the separatist regions of Donetsk and Luhansk. Shelling has increased around these regions for a second consecutive day.
In a video posted online but apparently recorded on Wednesday, Denis Pushilin, the pro-Moscow leader of the Donetsk People’s Republic, gave a stark warning. “Very soon, President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky will order the military to go on an offensive, to implement a plan to invade the territory of Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics. From today, Feb. 18 a mass organized transfer of the population to Russia is being organized. Women, children, and the elderly will need to be evacuated first. We urge you to listen and make the right decision.” The evacuees will go to the Rostov region of Russia, where camps and accommodations are being set up by the Russian Ministry of Emergency Situations.
A car bomb exploded outside of a government building earlier today in the center of Donetsk. The explosion occurred around 6:00 PM Donetsk time (11 AM Eastern Standard Time). Video and photos allegedly from the scene show a car engulfed in flames. The blast was reportedly heard around the city. The vehicle reportedly belonged to Denis Sinenkov, chief of the People’s Militia.
US officials now estimate the number of Russian troops near Ukraine to be somewhere between 160,000-190,000. This is a marked increase from the estimated 100,000 troops present in late January, 2022. According to Michael Carpenter, US ambassador to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe this represents the largest military mobilization to take place in Europe since the end of World War II. Adding to the tense situation, on Saturday Russia will conduct an exercise of its strategic nuclear forces, in which ballistic and cruise missiles will be test-fired.
Author’s Note: Next Update Will Be Posted Around 8 PM EST
In past twelve hours we’ve seen a consistent stream of reports from Russian media outlets about alleged Ukrainian military actions going on around Donetsk. Twelve hours ago, Russian claimed Ukrainian armed forces had commenced a ‘massive artillery bombardment of separatist Donetsk.’ This was followed up later in the day (Moscow time) by TASS reporting the death of a Donetsk People’s Republic soldier from Ukrainian sniper fire at the line of contact in Donbass. In the past few hours, similar reports of contact in the Donbass region have been appearing on social media platforms. Unfortunately, the news tweets and posts have not been followed up with any official confirmation from either the Ukrainian or Russian governments. In other words, it cannot be determined if these alleged skirmishes and artillery ‘barrages’ actually occurred. If they have, however, it could mark the start of Russian efforts to carve out a pretext for broader military action in Ukraine at some point in the near future.
The White House has warned that a Russian invasion can take place at any time. In a tour of the Sunday Morning news show circuit, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said, “We believe that the Russians have put in place the capabilities to mount a significant military operation into Ukraine, and we have been working hard to prepare a response.” On Friday, US officials stated that Russian has 70 percent of the troops, weapons and materials needed to launch a full-scale attack. It was also revealed that the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley told lawmakers in a closed-door briefing on Capitol Hill that Kiev (Kyiv) will likely fall within seventy-two hours of the start of a Russian attack. It is refreshing to see Milley present a realistic assessment which accurately displays the danger facing Ukraine if war breaks out.
Author’s Note: There will be a second update published later today. Likely in the early evening.
Surreptitiously, tensions between Russia and Ukraine has been rising in recent weeks. While the rest of the world’s attention has been transfixed elsewhere, Kiev and Moscow appear to be gravitating towards another standoff at the very least. Or, perhaps the beginning of a new phase of the War in Donbass which is now threatening to reignite after an extended period of dormancy.
Last month, senior Ukrainian military leaders publicly expressed concern that Russia’s moves in Donbass were a threat not only to Ukraine, but also to NATO. Last week four Ukrainian troops were killed by artillery strikes fired by Russian forces. Then, earlier this week, the commander-in-chief of the armed forces of Ukraine, Ruslan Khomchak warned that a steady buildup of Russian forces is taking place in close proximity to the border.
Meanwhile, the Kremlin has suddenly become chatty on the topic of eastern Ukraine. Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke to his German and French counterparts on Tuesday and discussed the escalating tensions with Ukraine. Putin views it as Kiev’s refusal to honor ceasefire guidelines agreed to last July. Yesterday, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov expressed concern about the tense situation in that area and expressed concerns that Kiev might be looking to restart the conflict. “We express concern over the growing tension and express concern that one way or another the Ukrainian side could take provocative actions that would lead to war. We really don’t want to see that.”
Russia’s words reinforce a growing feeling that the Moscow is probing the resolve of the West, perhaps in preparation for a move in the near future. For the first time in years, Vladimir Putin and his government are facing substantial domestic issues. Upcoming legislative elections later this year and the Alexey Navalny situation continue to influence the Kremlin’s thinking. Rekindling the conflict in eastern Ukraine and causing an escalation that ultimately leads to Russian gains would go a long way towards placating nationalist voters and ensuring a wide victory at the polls in September.
There are also a host of other factors to be considered. However, at the moment anxiety is rising over the eastern Ukraine as the prospect of renewed fighting there has sudden become very real once again.