Russia-Ukraine Live News: Putin Orders ‘Special Military Operation’

The United States said Wednesday that a full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine was imminent, and that Russian troops and separatist forces surrounding the country were in combat-ready positions.

“They are ready to go,” John F. Kirby, the top Pentagon spokesman, told reporters. “They could attack at any time,” he added, “with a significant military force.”

Ukraine girded for war by mobilizing its reservists and declaring a 30-day state of emergency as cyberattacks knocked out government institutions including Parliament, the Foreign Ministry and the cabinet of ministers.

In Moscow, the manufactured legal justification for an invasion fell into place. The Kremlin announced that separatist leaders in eastern Ukraine had requested Russia’s “help in repelling the aggression of the armed forces and formations of Ukraine.”

Ukraine denied any such aggression and stressed that none was planned.

In the capital, Kyiv, President Volodymyr Zelensky made an impassioned bid to spare his nation from war, appealing directly to the Russian people to remember their ties to Ukraine.

“Listen to the voice of reason,” Mr. Zelensky said in a nationally televised address early Thursday, adding that Kremlin propaganda painting Ukrainians as aggressors was a lie. “The people of Ukraine want peace, the authorities in Ukraine want peace.”

The West unveiled new sanctions targeting President Vladimir V. Putin’s inner circle, with threats of tighter measures if Russia escalates hostilities, but a senior Russian diplomat denigrated the idea that pressure would alter Russia’s course, suggesting that the sanctions would only create economic pain for the West.

In Washington, the Pentagon said that 80 percent of the 190,000 Russian troops and separatist forces poised along the Ukrainian border were now positioned for combat, making a full-scale invasion appear at hand. Mr. Zelensky said that Russian leadership had approved an invasion.

A senior Defense Department official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to describe Russian military operations in broad terms, said that the forces that the United States expected Moscow to muster to attack Ukraine were in place, bivouacked anywhere from three to 30 miles from the border if not across it in the contested east already.

Credit…Brendan Hoffman for The New York Times

The Kremlin gave no details on how Mr. Putin would respond to the request for help from the separatist leaders. Mr. Putin and the Russian media, virtually all under state control, have claimed repeatedly, without evidence, that Ukraine is fomenting “genocide” against the four million inhabitants of the separatist areas, many of them ethnic Russians.

Western officials have warned that Russia could use a claim of Ukrainian aggression as a pretext for an invasion.

Russian-backed separatists control only about one-third of the territory of the two breakaway regions, Donetsk and Luhansk. It remained unclear late Wednesday whether Mr. Putin would dispatch his considerable forces to enlarge the two enclaves to the full regions they claim, or if he had even broader territorial ambitions.

The latter would be likely to trigger the largest war in Europe since World War II. Such an attack would probably include missile salvos, airstrikes, special forces operations, an amphibious assault and ground troops, and could begin at any time, the American military official said.

Mr. Putin ordered Russian troops into eastern Ukraine on Monday though he has not said whether that order has taken effect.

President Biden said Tuesday that the Russian invasion had begun, but the Defense Department official said Wednesday that he did not have details on the precise numbers or locations of the troops in the separatist-controlled areas.

Videos shared on social media showed increased military movement in the Belgorod area of Russia, near the border along a potential invasion path.

Credit…Tyler Hicks/The New York Times

Several hundred Russian mercenaries from the Wagner paramilitary group have arrived in Donetsk and Luhansk, according to two senior European security officials.

The commandos, with experience fighting in Syria and Libya, were flown into Crimea, a peninsula annexed by Russia after sending in troops in 2014, and have since trickled into the rebel-held territories covertly in civilian clothes, the officials said.

Cyberattacks, another component of Russia’s assault on Ukraine, continued on Wednesday. The websites of various Ukrainian government institutions, including Parliament, the Foreign Ministry and the cabinet of ministers, crashed after a denial-of-service attack.

In his speech, delivered in Russian, President Zelensky conceded that his appeal would probably not be heard in Russia, where the media is largely state controlled, and said that an attempt to call President Putin directly was met with silence.

He tried to address the main accusations leveled against Ukrainians by the Kremlin. Ukrainians were not Nazis, he said, his own grandfather had served in the Soviet Army throughout the war. They did not hate Russian culture, he said.

“We are different,” he said, “but that is not a reason to be enemies. We want to determine, build our future ourselves, peacefully, calmly and honestly.”

Speaking of the contested areas of Donetsk and Luhansk, Mr. Zelensky said he suspected that the region was foreign to most Russians.

“This is our land, our history,” he said. “What are you going to be fighting for and with whom?”

Mr. Zelensky changed tack toward the end, warning that Ukrainians would fight to repel any attack.

“We won’t attack, but we will defend ourselves,” he said. “By attacking, you will see our faces — not our backs, but our faces.”

Earlier, Ukraine’s Security Council declared a 30-day state of national emergency in response to the threat of a Russian invasion. The government urged Ukrainian citizens in Russia to leave. Russia, in turn, began withdrawing more diplomats from Ukraine.

Ukraine’s Parliament also began formally working on plans for a law that would allow civilians to own firearms, one day after President Zelensky called up military reservists to fight for their country before it disappears.

Credit…Brendan Hoffman for The New York Times

The list of sanctions imposed on Russia continued to grow, with European leaders expected to hold an emergency summit in Brussels on Thursday to discuss further steps. So far the sanctions have avoided steps that would harm Europe, like targeting the energy sector.

On Wednesday, the European Union announced sanctions on various high-profile Russian officials and media figures, including the defense minister, Sergei K. Shoigu, and Mr. Putin’s chief of staff, Anton Vaino.

Australia, Canada and Japan also unveiled sanctions. And the White House announced a second round of sanctions, on the company building the gas pipeline connecting Russia to Germany.

E.U. officials described their sanctions list — nearly 600 pages that included travel bans and asset freezes — as just a first step toward punishing those involved in Russia’s recognition on Monday of the so-called republics of Donetsk and Luhansk as independent states, a move that allowed their leaders to request Russian military assistance on Wednesday.

Two prominent individuals on the list were Maria Zakharova, the spokeswoman for the Foreign Ministry, and Margarita Simonyan, who leads the television network RT and has been a vocal cheerleader on social media for Russian intervention in Ukraine.

Yevgeny Prigozhin — a wealthy Russian businessman sometimes known as “Putin’s cook” because he first attracted the president’s attention through his catering business, and was later linked to the Wagner mercenary group — was included on the E.U. sanctions list alongside several members of his family.

Credit…Pool photo by Mikhail Metzel

President Biden said on Wednesday he would issue economic sanctions on the company building the gas pipeline connecting Russia to Germany. The Biden administration warned of additional measures in the event Russia escalates an armed conflict, signaling that it is ready to impose a ban on exports of American technology that are vital to the Russian economy.

The warning came a day after the United States announced sanctions on two Russian banks and curbs on Russia’s sovereign debt, effectively cutting the country off from Western financing. Russia has amassed more than $600 billion in reserves in recent years to withstand such measures. Export controls would represent a significant expansion of the tools the United States is prepared to deploy to respond to further aggression.

Australia will impose travel bans and financial penalties on eight members of Russia’s National Security Council, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said Wednesday. It will also punish several Russian banks.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada said Tuesday that his country would enact prohibitions on dealing with Russian sovereign debt and impose sanctions on two Russian banks. Canada will also penalize Russian lawmakers who voted to recognize the two regions.

In Japan, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said Wednesday that the country would enact similar sanctions against Russia, including prohibiting it from issuing new sovereign bonds in Japanese markets. Most countries banned doing business with Donetsk and Luhansk, a largely symbolic gesture since the battered Soviet industrial areas have been isolated since 2014.

Credit…Lynsey Addario for The New York Times

Russia’s ambassador to the United States responded defiantly, saying that the country was used to living under such sanctions from the West and that the new penalties would hurt global financial and energy markets as well as Americans.

“It is hard to imagine that there is a person in Washington who expects Russia to revise its foreign policy under a threat of restrictions,” the ambassador, Anatoly Antonov, said on Facebook.

Ukraine welcomed the measures but called for even tougher restrictions against Russia.

In Russia itself, celebrating Defenders of the Fatherland Day, a national holiday marking the founding of the Red Army, Mr. Putin reiterated his combative message. Russia’s demands for an equitable system of international security “remain unanswered,” he said, blaming military activity by the NATO bloc for what he described as “the difficult international situation.”

At a news conference late Tuesday, Mr. Putin declared dead the Minsk Protocol, an agreement reached by Russia, Ukraine and Western intermediaries in 2015 to end the fighting in eastern Ukraine and long considered the main vehicle for a diplomatic solution.

“The Minsk agreements do not exist anymore,” he told reporters. “Why abide by them if we have recognized the independence of these entities?” Yet at the same time, in his national address on Wednesday, he said that Russia was “open to a direct and honest dialogue and ready to search for diplomatic solutions to the most complicated issues.”

He dodged a question from a reporter about how far he would go militarily in the separatist region, saying “It is absolutely impossible to predict the detailed path of possible actions. It depends on the concrete situation that is unfolding on the ground.”

Russia has effectively controlled those areas since March 2014. Late Wednesday, Russian state media published letters to Mr. Putin from the separatist leaders that cited the “friendship, cooperation and mutual support” treaties that they had signed with him on Monday. Both letters were dated Feb. 22.

American and European security officials have warned repeatedly that Moscow was planning a “false flag” operation, an invented attack by Ukraine to justify a Russian offensive.

“Kyiv is currently continuing to build up its military presence on the contact line while receiving extensive support, including military support, from the United States of America and other western countries,” one of the separatist leaders, Leonid Pasechnik of the Luhansk region, wrote in the letter to Mr. Putin. “In defiance of its international obligations, the regime in Kyiv is focused on a military solution to its conflict with the Luhansk People’s Republic.”

Credit…Tyler Hicks/The New York Times

Reporting was contributed by Eric Schmitt from Washington; Anton Troianovski from Moscow; Valerie Hopkins from Kyiv, Ukraine; Matina Stevis-Gridneff from Brussels; Michael Schwirtz from Slaviansk, Ukraine; Christoph Koettl from New York; and Haley Willis from London.

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