On Monday, Russian President Vladimir Putin officially recognized two regions within Ukraine as “independent states” before ordering Russian forces across the border to conduct “peacekeeping” operations within them. This announcement and the movement of Russian troops into the Donbass region of Ukraine are serious developments in the situation, but to this point, the shots being fired in the region do not appear to be the opening volley of a much larger war.
In fact, White House officials have made it clear that while the Biden administration and much of the international community see Russia’s new aggression as unacceptable, Russia’s recognition of Luhansk and Donetsk as independent states does not, in itself, represent a dramatic shift in the nations’ existing posture.
The Donbas region of Ukraine where Luhansk (LNR) and Donetsk (DNR) are located has been the site of continuous fighting between Russian-backed separatists and Ukraine’s military since 2014; the same year Russia illegally annexed Crimea—a southern peninsula—from the nation. Despite Western intelligence agencies repeatedly pointing to clear evidence that Russian troops have been fighting in this conflict, Russia has formally denied these allegations.
“Russian troops moving into the Donbas would not itself be a new step. Russia has had forces in the Donbas region for the last eight years,” NPR reports a senior administration official told reporters on a briefing call Monday evening.
“Their narrative has been that they do not. Our certain knowledge has been that they have.”
This news comes after weeks of heightened tensions brought about by Russia massing as many as 190,000 troops on Ukraine’s border and issuing a series of demands for their withdrawal. Russia’s demands include never allowing any former Soviet territory to join the NATO alliance, the return of all weapons and equipment supplied to Ukraine, and a broad withdrawal of NATO forces out of Eastern Europe.
This massive show of force and list of demands has been accompanied by broad disinformation efforts out of Russia, prompting Western officials to repeatedly warn of “false flag” attacks that Russia may use as a pretense for invasion. On Sunday night, Russia appeared to do just that, claiming to have killed five Ukrainian “saboteurs” they’d caught across the border in Russian territory. That claim, however, has been refuted by Ukraine’s military and Western intelligence agencies alike.
“We have seen a number of actions that are clear Russian-backed pretexts for further invasion, like explosions at eastern Ukraine that just happened to have Russian state media covering them in the middle of the night,” the same governmebt official explained.
“Or videos of alleged emergency evacuation calls, or so-called saboteurs, whose metadata show clearly they were created days before their release. These attempts at disinformation aren’t fooling anyone.”
The Biden administration has announced that it “will prohibit new investment, trade, and financing by U.S. persons to, from, or in the so-called DNR and LNR regions of Ukraine. We will also soon announce additional measures related to today’s blatant violation of Russia’s international commitments.“
Despite these immediate actions, White House press secretary Jen Psaki was quick to point out that they are not the same far-reaching economic sanctions the United States intends to levy on Russia if a full-scale invasion of Ukraine were to take place.
“To be clear: 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,” she said.
To be clear, Putin’s decision to send troops into Ukraine is a clear and intentional violation of multiple international agreements. It is a significant escalation, and for the people of Ukraine, Russian forces crossing the border into their country is tantamount to an invasion nonetheless. Many within Ukraine contend that Russia has manufactured the separatist movement in Donbass and are now using it as cover for them to capture and occupy more of their nation.