Explosions and Confusion: What Is Happening Right Now on the Border Between Russia and Ukraine
By Yury Krylov, Contributing Author, FRF
The situation around Russian threat against Ukraine keeps tensions high globally. The atmosphere in Donbass escalated dramatically on February 18, when the Kremlin-controlled leaders of the self-proclaimed and internationally unrecognized DNR and LNR republics publicly asserted that Kyiv was preparing an assault (the Ukrainian authorities categorically deny such intentions) and announced the evacuation of some residents of these regions to Russia. Shooting resumed on the front line. U.S. President Joe Biden forecasted that “Russia may launch an invasion in the next few days,” and the Kremlin reiterated its demands for security guarantees.
The State Duma’s Appeal to the Russian President
On February 15, 2022, the Russian State Duma appealed to President Putin to officially recognize the independence of the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics. The resolution was introduced by deputies from the Communist party, but representatives of other parties also voted for it.
United Russia party prepared an alternative draft of the resolution. It was more cautious and stipulated that parliament should first consult with the Foreign Ministry and then apply to the President. In the end, United Russia’s proposal received only 310 votes, while the Communists’ resolution received 351.
“The deputies of the State Duma appeal to you, Mr. Vladimir Vladimirovich, to consider the issue of recognition by the Russian Federation of the Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic as autonomous, sovereign and independent states, as well as the issue of holding negotiations with the leadership of the Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic as soon as possible to create a legal basis for interstate relations, ensuring regulation of all aspects of cooperation, including security issues,” — it says, among other things, in this document.
After summarizing the results of the vote, State Duma Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin said that the parliament’s appeal to the president to recognize the DNR and LNR would be signed immediately, after which it would be sent to Vladimir Putin.
The Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics declared independence from Ukraine in May 2014 after a majority of participants in referendums held in the regions supported the adoption of acts of self-determination for the DNR and LNR. Diplomatically, the two Donbass republics are recognized only by South Ossetia, a partially recognized state in the Caucasus.
Vladimir Putin himself commented on the Duma address during a press conference with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, who visited Moscow for talks on the escalating situation around Ukraine. According to Putin, when voting on the issue of recognition of the DNR and LNR, deputies were guided by “the opinion of their voters,” which they “subtly feel.”
The Evacuation of DNR and LNR Citizens to Russia
On the evening of February 16 and morning of February 17, OSCE observers reported about 500 explosions near the line of contact in the east of Ukraine, which is several times higher than on previous days.
On the morning of February 18, 2022, the leaders of the LNR and DNR republics announced the evacuation of their residents to Russia. Denis Pushilin, head of the DNR, said that women, children and the elderly would be evacuated first. According to him, the evacuees will be accommodated and provided with everything they need in the Rostov region. After Pushilin’s appeal, sirens went off in Donetsk, and city residents lined up at ATMs. Soon the evacuation was announced in the Luhansk People’s Republic. Its head Leonid Pasechnik urged residents who had not been mobilized and were not involved in the provision of social and civil infrastructure to leave for Russia as soon as possible.
A few hours after the announcement of the evacuation, Pushilin said in a new speech that “it is going to full-scale war” and expressed the opinion that the number of refugees to Russia could reach hundreds of thousands. The DNR Emergencies Ministry said that it was planning to evacuate about 700,000 people. First buses with refugees left the republic around 8 p.m.
Both leaders of the self-proclaimed republics of Donbass explained the need for evacuation by rising tensions in the region. Pasechnik, citing “intelligence data,” said that the “Ukrainian aggressor” was planning provocations on the line of contact and a “deep breakthrough” into LNR territory.
Putin ordered to provide each person arriving from the self-proclaimed DNR and LNR in Rostov Region with 10,000 rubles. And in the Rostov Region, which borders on Ukraine, an operational headquarters was set up to coordinate the evacuation from the DNR and LNR.
Remarkably, the heads of the DNR and LNR recorded their video messages announcing the evacuation as early as February 16. The timestamp contained in the metadata of the videos was publicized by Bellingcat investigator Arik Toller. The head of DNR Denis Pushilin, in particular, draws attention in his speech that he said it “today, on February 18”. The folder, in which Passechnik’s address was filed, was entitled “Mongoose throw”.
By Monday evening, February 21, 2022, more than 60 thousand people had already crossed the border with Russia. A state of emergency was introduced in the Voronezh region and a state of heightened readiness in the Ryazan region.
Ukraine rejected accusations of preparing sabotage and invasion operations in Donbass. “We categorically refute Russian propaganda reports about allegedly offensive operations by Ukraine <…> Ukraine does not conduct or plan any such actions in Donbass. We are fully committed exclusively to a diplomatic settlement,” Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba tweeted. The commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, Valery Zaluzhny, said that the statements of the “occupation administrations” of Donbass about the attack of the Ukrainian military are not true.
On February 19, 2022, Ukrainian President Vladimir Zelensky spoke at the Munich Security Conference, emotionally expressing his grievances against both Russia and the West. Western countries, according to Zelensky, are not doing enough to restrain Vladimir Putin.
Zelensky said he was initiating consultations within the framework of the Budapest Memorandum, which provides guarantees of Ukraine’s security and territorial integrity in exchange for its renunciation of nuclear weapons. The Budapest memorandum was signed on December 5, 1994 by Great Britain, Russia, the United States and Ukraine. The document came into force in connection with Ukraine’s accession to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. Other states pledged to respect Ukraine’s sovereignty and refrain from using force against it in connection with the removal of nuclear weapons from its territory.
The Ukrainian president also offered Russian leader Vladimir Putin a meeting. “I don’t know what the president of the Russian Federation wants, so I suggest a meeting,” he said.
On February 18, 2022, U.S. President Joe Biden delivered an address on the situation around Ukraine in which he said that, according to his sources, Vladimir Putin had already made a decision about a possible Russian invasion of Ukraine. The speech was broadcast live by the White House.
The American leader believes that Kyiv is being tried to be provoked in the Donbass. He is confident that Russian troops remain close to the borders with Ukraine: according to him, they are planning an invasion within days. Biden noted that the U.S. is not going to send its military to Ukraine but assured that Washington will continue to support Kyiv.
“There is no point in Ukraine attacking. Russia continues to fabricate claims that Ukraine is preparing to attack Russia. This is a classic that Russia has already used,” Biden said.
Before his speech, Biden had time to discuss the situation with the leaders of NATO countries —Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Romania, Canada, the alliance itself and the EU.
The White House also reminded that in case of Russia’s military aggression, the US would impose sanctions on the biggest Russian financial institutions and state-owned companies, as well as on a number of industrial sectors.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson called an invasion inevitable and warned of “the biggest war in Europe since 1945.”
On February 20, French and Russian presidents Emmanuel Macron and Vladimir Putin held telephone talks to discuss the situation in Ukraine. Macron and Putin agreed to intensify diplomatic work— the ultimate goal should be a summit to define a new peace and security architecture in Europe. The presidents also agreed to resume work in the “Normandy format.”
Against this backdrop, the airline Lufthansa announced that it would suspend flights to Kyiv from February 21 to 28, 2022. The carrier will also suspend flights to Odessa. At the same time, Austrian Airlines said it would stop flights to Kyiv and Odessa from February 20 until the end of the month. Suspension of commercial flights gravely harm the Ukrainian economy.
On February 19, the German and Austrian authorities urged their citizens to leave Ukraine due to a possible Russian invasion.
What’s Happening Right Now
Early Monday morning, February 21, 2022, the heads of the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk republics Denis Pushilin and Leonid Pasechnik asked Russian President Vladimir Putin to recognize their independence.
“On behalf of the entire people of the Donetsk People’s Republic, we ask you to recognize the DNR as an independent, democratic, legal and social state,” said DNR head Denis Pushilin.
The heads of the DNR and LNR also asked Putin to conclude treaties of friendship and partnership with the republics after the recognition of independence.
Shortly thereafter, Putin commenced an emergency meeting of the Russian Security Council. The Russian leader said that he convened the meeting to discuss the situation in Donbass. All of its participants supported the recognition of the independence of the DNR and LNR.
Head of the Federal Security Service Alexander Bortnikov spoke about “two sabotage groups” on the border between Russia and Ukraine and “a captured Ukrainian military man,” as well as about the 68,500 refugees arriving in Russia from Donbass.
Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu spoke about more than 40 bombings in Donbass “overnight alone,” damaged infrastructure, and Donetsk residents left without water.
At the end of the meeting, Putin said that he had heard his colleagues’ opinions and promised that “a decision will be made today.”
On the same day, Vladimir Putin addressed the Russians. He explained why Russia recognized the DNR and LNR. The president spoke for about an hour, during which he shared his own very bizarre history of Ukraine, denying grounds for its statehood. In the first part of the address, Putin spoke in detail about the collapse of the USSR, which resulted in an independent Ukraine; lamented the corruption and high utility bills in modern Ukraine; said that aggressive actions in Ukraine are supported by foreign special services; and added that Ukrainian authorities can build nuclear weapons and that NATO bases are “actually deployed on Ukrainian territory.”
Ukraine’s accession to NATO, Putin said, poses a direct threat to Russia’s security. “That is why I have decided to recognize the independence and sovereignty of the DNR and LNR. I am sure the citizens of Russia and all patriotic forces of the country will support me,” Putin concluded. Immediately afterward, television broadcasted the footage of the signing of treaties with the LNR and DNR in the Kremlin. Vladimir Putin also issued an order for the Russian Armed Forces to “perform peacekeeping functions” in the self-proclaimed republics of Donbass.
On February 22, the United States threatened new sanctions against Russia over its recognition of the LNR and DNR. “Putin wants the world to go back in time, when there was no United Nations and the world was ruled by empires. But the rest of the world has moved on. It’s not 1919, it’s 2022,” Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the U.S. permanent representative to the organization, told an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council. According to her, with his latest actions, Vladimir Putin “ripped the Minsk agreements to shreds.”
The United Kingdom, Canada and the European Union also announced their intention to impose new sanctions against Russia. The United Kingdom said that it might increase military aid to Ukraine. According to DPA and Der Spiegel, the sanctions could include 350 Duma deputies who voted for the recognition of the DNR and LNR, as well as Russian banks with ties to Donbass. The EU sanctions provide for the freezing of assets on the territory of the association and a ban on entry into the EU.
President Joe Biden signed a resolution prohibiting investments in the DNR and LNR, as well as the import of goods, services or technologies from there. The document implies blocking the US property of people associated with the DNR and LNR, and also allows imposing sanctions against those who decide to operate in the self-proclaimed republics. The document said that Russia’s decision threatens the national security and foreign policy of the US.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said in an address to the nation that Ukraine’s internationally recognized borders would remain the same. He stressed that the country was pursuing a peaceful path but was ready to defend itself. Ukraine demanded an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council, the OSCE and the “Normandy quartet.” The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry condemned Russia’s decision, saying that it violated the basics of international law and the UN Charter, as well as Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.
The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry also asked Volodymyr Zelenskyy to consider severing diplomatic relations with Russia.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and European Council President Charles Michel said that “the recognition of two separatist regions in Ukraine is a blatant violation of international law, Ukraine’s territorial integrity, and the Minsk agreements. Polish President Andrzej Duda called on NATO and the EU to act tough on Russia to “stop the aggressor.” Lithuanian Prime Minister Ingrida Shimonite said that Putin’s actions “put Kafka and Orwell to shame.”
On Tuesday, February 22, Great Britain imposed sanctions against Gennady Timchenko, Boris Rotenberg and Igor Rotenberg — Russian oligarchs and close personal associates of Vladimir Putin. Five Russian banks also fall under British sanctions. The assets of these individuals and companies in Britain will be frozen, Boris Johnson said.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz announced that the certification of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline would be halted indefinitely due to the recognition of the DNR and LNR.
And the final news: the Federation Council allowed Putin to deploy Russian troops to the DNR and LNR. At the same time, the documents signed by Putin and the heads of the LNR and DNR do not specify the boundaries within which the republics are recognized. Representatives of the LNR and DNR stated that it could be the borders of Luhansk and Donetsk regions, some of which are controlled by Ukraine.