The president of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskiy has said "we're not afraid" in a defiant address to his nation, as Russian leader Vladimir Putin ordered troops over the border into Moscow-controlled territories in the east of the country.
Moscow recognised two breakaway regions of eastern Ukraine as independent states on Monday and planned to send troops there as peacekeepers, drawing condemnation from western leaders and fuelling fears of a major invasion of Ukraine by Russian forces massed near its borders.
Speaking after the first reports that Russian troops were crossing into the country, into enclaves controlled by Moscow since 2014, Mr Zelenskiy said: “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.”
Mr Putin signed a decree on the sovereignty of the so-called people's republics of Donetsk and Luhansk after a long and rambling televised address in which he questioned the statehood of Ukraine and said its deepening integration with the West posed a major threat to Russia's security.
“I deem it necessary to make a decision that should have been made a long time ago – to immediately recognise the independence and sovereignty” of the regions, Mr Putin said, after accusing Ukraine of committing “genocide” against their mostly Russian-speaking residents.
He offered no evidence for that claim, which came amid a storm of grievances against Ukraine, a country of 41 million that he portrayed as a Soviet construct lacking deeper historical legitimacy, a corruption-riddled, failing state controlled by ultra-nationalists and by Washington, and even as a country that in the future could menace Moscow with nuclear weapons.
A Reuters witness saw columns of military vehicles including tanks early on Tuesday on the outskirts of the city of Donetsk. The reporter saw about five tanks in a column on the edge of the city and two more in another part of town.
No insignia were visible, but the appearance of the tanks came hours after Mr Putin signed the friendship treaties with the two separatist regions and ordered Russian troops to deploy on what Moscow called a peacekeeping operation.
The decree signed by Mr Putin includes an order to Russia’s defence ministry to send an unspecified number of soldiers to the regions “to support peace”.
The bitterness of Mr Putin’s address – made eight years to the night after a pro-western revolution in Kyiv ousted its then Kremlin-backed leader – only increased concern that the autocrat may launch a new attack on Ukraine using the 150,000 Russian troops, tanks, fighter jets, missile systems and warships that he has deployed to the north, south and east of the country.
The Moscow-installed leaders of Donetsk and Luhansk appealed to Mr Putin to recognise their independence amid a surge in shelling in the Donbas area of eastern Ukraine, which Kyiv and its western allies say is part of a Kremlin plan to create a pretext for more aggression against the country.
“Those who seized power and keep power in Kyiv, we demand they stop the hostilities immediately. Otherwise, all the responsibility for the possible continuation of the bloodbath will be on the conscience of the regime that is ruling in Kyiv,” Mr Putin said.
Ursula von der Leyen and Charles Michel, presidents of the European Commission and Council respectively, called Mr Putin's decree on recognition "a blatant violation of international law, the territorial integrity of Ukraine and the Minsk agreements", referring in the last case to a failing 2015 framework peace deal for Donbas.
“The union will react with sanctions against those involved in this illegal act,” they said in a joint statement.
The White House said US president Joe Biden would sign an executive order on sanctions to prohibit any US economic ties with Donetsk and Luhansk.
The measures announced by the EU and US are not thought to be part of a package of severe new economic sanctions that western leaders say they will impose on Russia if it launches a fresh attack on Ukraine, where in 2014 it annexed Crimea and began a war in Donbas that has killed 14,000 people.
Mr Zelenskiy spoke to Mr Biden about the Kremlin’s decision and called a meeting of his country’s security and defence council in Kyiv.
Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney said, "Ireland's support for Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity is unwavering.
"The decision by Russia to recognise the areas of Donetsk and Luhansk contravenes international law. Ireland supports a clear, united and strong EU response, including sanctions." – Additional reporting Reuters, Guardian