Russia faced western sanctions and bitter condemnation at the United Nations after Vladimir Putin ordered troops over the Ukrainian border into Moscow-controlled territories in the east of the country, which he had recognised hours earlier.
With reports of Russian armoured columns advancing into the Donetsk and Luhansk regions under the guise of “peacekeepers” in the Russian-backed enclaves, the US imposed some limited sanctions and warned more would come on Tuesday. The UK is also due to unveil its own package of punitive measures.
Both the US and UK believe that the Russian entry into the eastern tip of Ukraine is a precursor for a more sweeping invasion.
“This is the moment – the moment to stand up and defend the United Nations and our international order as we know it,” Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the US ambassador to the UN, said. She cast doubt on Putin’s assertion that the Russian troops would take on a “peacekeeping” role in the Donetsk and Lugansk areas. “He calls them peacekeepers. This is nonsense. We know what they really are,” she said.
The US withdrew its remaining diplomats in Ukraine on Monday, deploying them to Poland, as Putin’s move rattled markets around the world.
Ukraine’s foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, appealed for strong sanctions as the only way of stalling further Russian encroachment.
“World capitals don’t sleep now, regardless of their time zones,” Kuleba said on Twitter. “Ukraine insists: further Russian actions rely on how the world reacts. Russia must be in no doubt that the world talks the talk and walks the walk on sanctions.”
Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, made a defiant late night address to his nation, after the first reports of Russian troops were crossing into the country, into enclaves controlled by Moscow since 2014.
“We are on our land. We don’t fear anything or anyone. We don’t owe anything to anyone. And we won’t give anything up,” Zelenskiy said.
At the UN, Ukraine’s permanent representative, Sergiy Kyslytsya, compared Putin’s decrees recognising separatist regions in Ukraine to one for Georgia in 2008, saying: “The copying machine in the Kremlin works very well. Who is the next among the members of the UN?”
It was at the UN that Russia felt its isolation most keenly, as three African council members: Kenya, Gabon and Ghana, spoke out against Moscow’s actions for violating Ukraine’s territorial integrity. A few weeks earlier, Kenya and Gabon had abstained on a Ukraine-related vote.
On Monday night, Kenya’s permanent representative, Martin Kimani, delivered a powerful address, suggesting Russia learn to live with ethnic grievances just as African states have done.
“Kenya and almost every African country was birthed by the ending of empire. Our borders were not of our own drawing,” Kimani said. “Had we chosen to pursue states on the basis of ethnic, racial or religious homogeneity, we would still be waging bloody wars these many decades later.”
“We rejected irredentism and expansionism on any basis, including racial, ethnic, religious or cultural factors. We reject it again today,” he concluded.
Russia, which currently chairs the security council, had tried to hold the late night meeting behind closed doors, but was overruled by a majority of council members.
Vasily Nebenzya, the Russian permanent representative repeated Moscow’s unfounded claims that Ukraine was about to launch an attack on the eastern Moscow-backed enclaves, presented as a pretext for sending in Russian troops.
“Allowing a new bloodbath in the Donbas is something we do not intend to do,” he said. Ukraine has denied any plans for an offensive, and independent reporting has shown no signs that one is imminent.
India, the United Arab Emirates and Brazil, avoided mentioning Russia at the council session while urging negotiations. The Chinese permanent representative, Zhang Yun, made a very brief, non-committal statement, which observers said suggested that Beijing has yet to make up its mind.
“This reads like a placeholder,” Bonnie Glaser, the director of the Asia programme at the German Marshall Fund, said. “China hasn’t decided what its policy response should be yet.”
The US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, spoke to his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, on Monday night, and according to the state department, “underscored the need to preserve Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
On Monday night Ukrainian officials warned that Russian troops may have already entered separatist territory. The officials said local people in the town of Makiivka, 15km west of rebel-held Donetsk, saw what appeared to be Russian armoured vehicles on the move.
One source – who declined to be named – said “a huge convoy of Russian armoured personnel carriers and other equipment has been travelling for one-and-a-half hours”. It was spotted heading north towards the city of Yasynuvata, also in the Donetsk region.
Video released by Ukraine appeared to show a column of military vehicles moving in convoy along a road. The officials said it was not possible to tell if the troops belonged to the regular Russian army, or were from Russian-controlled separatist units.
Putin announced the decision in a televised speech marked by the Russian leader’s visceral anger at a country he has called a “brother nation”.
“Those who took the path of violence, bloodshed and lawlessness did not recognise and don’t recognise any other solution to the Donbas problem besides the military,” Putin said. “Therefore I believe it is necessary to take a long-overdue decision to immediately recognise the independence and sovereignty of the Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic” – the Russian proxy states in east Ukraine.