By Raf Casert | The Associated Press
BRUSSELS (AP) — World leaders on Wednesday waited to see if Russian President Vladimir Putin would cast the die and order troops deeper into Ukraine. At the same time, they worked to maintain a united stance and vowed to impose tougher sanctions in the event of a full-fledged invasion.
Fears of an imminent offensive were further heightened late Wednesday when the Kremlin said rebel leaders in eastern Ukraine have asked Russia for military assistance to help fend off Ukrainian “aggression.”
With Russian lawmakers having authorized Putin to use military force outside the country and Ukraine surrounded on three sides by more than 150,000 troops, the rumble of tanks did not appear far off.
Ukraine, after weeks of trying to project calm, imposed a nationwide state of emergency. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy made a passionate plea for peace, telling Russians that Ukraine is not an enemy.
Here are the things to know about the conflict over Ukraine and the security crisis in Eastern Europe:
PUTIN STIRS PASSIONS ON DAY HONORING SOLDIERS AND VETS
Russia evacuated its embassy in Kyiv and marked Defender of the Fatherland Day, a holiday high in national symbolism. Along the Kremlin wall, soldiers put red carnations on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier while Putin honored the memory of the ones who died in past wars.
Putin whipped up Russian nationalism on Monday with a fiery speech indicating that Ukraine historically had no cause for being. He said during Wednesday’s commemoration that Russia would continue to strengthen and modernize its army and navy, “striving to increase their effectiveness, so they are fitted out with the most cutting-edge equipment.”
WHAT IS UKRAINE’S PRESIDENT DOING?
Speaking in Russian, Zelenskyy gave an emotional address early Thursday in which he rejected Moscow’s claims that his country poses a threat to Russia and lamented that a Russian invasion would cost tens of thousands of lives.
“People of Ukraine and the government of Ukraine want peace,” he said in Russian. “But if we come under an attack that threatens our freedom and the lives of our people, we will fight back.”
Zelenskyy said he asked for a call with Putin late Wednesday but the Kremlin didn’t respond.
Earlier Wednesday, Ukraine imposed a nationwide state of emergency, which allows authorities to impose restrictions on movement, block rallies and ban political parties and organizations.
WHAT IS THE SITUATION IN EASTERN UKRAINE AND ALONG THE BORDER?
Kyiv reported heavy shelling on the frontline in eastern Ukraine, where Russia-backed rebels have held territory since 2014. The Ukrainian military said Wednesday one of its soldiers was killed and six more were wounded. Separatist officials reported several explosions on their territory and three civilian deaths.
The Pentagon said the Russian force arrayed along Ukraine’s borders is in an advanced state of readiness. “They are ready to go right now, should that be the way Mr. Putin wants to go,” press secretary John Kirby said.
The latest images released by the Maxar satellite image company show Russian troops and military equipment deployed within 10 miles (16 kilometers) of the Ukrainian border and less than 50 miles (80 kilometers) from Ukraine’s second-largest city, Kharkiv.
WHEN WILL THE WEST IMPOSE MORE SANCTIONS?
Ukraine’s forces are no match for Moscow’s military might, so Kyiv is counting on other countries to hit Russia hard — with sanctions.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said on Twitter that the West should target Putin where it hurts without delay. “Hit his economy and cronies. Hit more. Hit hard. Hit now,” Kuleba wrote.
President Joe Biden on Wednesday allowed sanctions to move forward against the company that built the Russia-to-Germany Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline and against the company’s CEO.
Biden waived sanctions last year when the project was almost completed, in return for an agreement from Germany to take action against Russia if it used gas as a weapon or attacked Ukraine. Germany said Tuesday it was indefinitely suspending the pipeline.
Ukraine’s Western supporters said they had already sent out a strong message with a first batch of sanctions on Tuesday. They said Russian troops moving beyond the separatist-held regions would produce more painful sanctions and possibly the biggest war in a generation on Europe’s mainland.
“This is the toughest sanctions regime we’ve ever put in place against Russia,” British Foreign Secretary said of measures that target key banks that fund the Russian military and oligarchs. “But it will go further, if we see a full-scale invasion of Ukraine.”
The European Union finalized a similar package, which also targets legislators in the lower house of Russia’s parliament and makes it tougher for Moscow to get on EU financial and capital markets.
U.S. actions announced Tuesday target high-ranking Russian officials and two Russian banks considered especially close to the Kremlin and Russia’s military, with more than $80 billion in assets.
HOW IS UKRAINE’S ECONOMY HOLDING UP?
It is Ukraine, not Russia, where the economy is eroding the fastest under the threat of war.
One by one, embassies and international offices in Kyiv have closed. Flight after flight was canceled when insurance companies balked at covering planes arriving in Ukraine. Hundreds of millions of dollars in investment dried up within weeks.
The squeezing of Ukraine’s economy is a key destabilizing tactic in what the government describes as “hybrid warfare” intended to eat away at the country from within.
The economic woes include restaurants that dare not keep more than a few days of food on hand, stalled plans for a hydrogen production plant that could help wean Europe off Russian gas and uncertain conditions for shipping in the Black Sea, where container ships must carefully edge their way around Russian military vessels.
HOW IS THE CONFRONTATION SEEN IN RUSSIA?
Russian state media are portraying Moscow as coming to the rescue of war-torn areas of eastern Ukraine that are tormented by Ukraine’s aggression.
TV presenters are professing the end of suffering for the residents of the breakaway regions.
“You paid with your blood for these eight years of torment and anticipation,” anchor Olga Skabeyeva said during a popular political talk show Tuesday morning. “Russia will now be defending Donbas.”
Channel One struck a more festive tone, with its correspondent in Donetsk asserting that local residents “say it is the best news over the past years of war.”
“Now they have confidence in the future and that the years-long war will finally come to an end,” she said.
Whether ordinary Russians are buying it is another question.
WHO IS BACKING RUSSIA IN THE CRISIS?
Russia is not facing the rest of the world on its own. China is leaning toward Russia and accused the U.S. of stoking the Ukraine crisis.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said Washington “keeps sending weapons to Ukraine, creating fear and panic and even playing up the threat of war.”
She said China has been calling on all parties to respect one another’s legitimate security concerns.
Earlier Moscow and Beijing issued a joint statement backing Russia’s objections to NATO accepting Ukraine and other former Soviet republics as members and buttressing China’s claim to the self-governing island of Taiwan.
Turkey, which is part of NATO but also has strong bonds with Russia and Ukraine, sought to keep all sides close. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan spoke by phone with Putin and said a military conflict would benefit no one.
A statement from the Turkish president’s office said Erdogan told Putin that Turkey does not approve of actions that undermine Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, and described Ankara’s position as “a principled stance.”
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