Hopes for a diplomatic way out of a new devastating war appeared all but sunk as the US and key European allies accused Moscow of crossing a red line in rolling over Ukraine’s border into separatist regions — with several calling it an invasion.
The top US diplomat cancelled a meeting with his Russian counterpart, and Kyiv recalled its ambassador and considered breaking all diplomatic ties with Moscow. Meanwhile, dozens of nations further squeezed Russian oligarchs and banks out of international markets, Germany halted a lucrative pipeline deal, and the US repositioned additional troops to Nato’s eastern flank bordering Russia.
Ukraine’s president called up the country’s reservists and warned that Ukraine could face a battle for its very existence.
President Volodymyr Zelenskiy ruled out a general mobilisation in an evening address to the nation. But the decision to bring reservists back into active duty was a further sign that Ukraine was bracing for a possible military clash with its neighbour.
For weeks Mr Zelenskiy has urged calm, and a search for diplomatic solutions, even as western allies issued increasingly urgent warnings about Russian invasion plans. Now he has told his country it must “increase the readiness of the Ukrainian army for all possible changes in the operational situation”. He added: “We need to promptly replenish the Ukrainian army and other military formations.”
Mr Zelenskiy’s defiant speech came after the US said on Wednesday that the invasion it had forecast for weeks had finally begun. Mr Zelenskiy said that Ukraine is a peaceful country, but its people would not stay quiet in the face of aggression.
Ukraine’s foreign ministry on Wednesday advised against travel to Russia and recommended anyone there leave immediately, saying Moscow’s “aggression” could lead to a significant reduction in consular services.
The head of Ukraine’s national security and defence council called for a nationwide state of emergency — subject to parliamentary approval.
Oleksiy Danilov said it will be up to regional authorities to determine which measures to apply, but they could include additional protection for public facilities, restrictions on traffic, and more transport and document checks.
The threat of war has shredded Ukraine’s economy and raised the spectre of massive casualties, energy shortages across Europe and global economic chaos.
Even as the conflict took a dangerous turn, leaders warned it could still get worse. Russian president Vladimir Putin has yet to unleash the force of 150,000 troops massed on three sides of Ukraine, while US president Joe Biden held back on even tougher sanctions that could cause economic turmoil for Russia, but said they would go ahead if there is further aggression.
Ukrainian foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba urged western leaders not to wait.
“We call on partners to impose more sanctions on Russia now,” he wrote on Twitter on Wednesday. “Now the pressure needs to step up to stop Putin. Hit his economy and cronies. Hit more. Hit hard. Hit now.”
Responding defiantly to the steps already taken, Russia’s ambassador in the US, Anatoly Antonov, retorted that “sanctions cannot solve a thing” in a statement on Facebook.
“It is hard to imagine that there is a person in Washington who expects Russia to revise its foreign policy under a threat of restrictions.”
In Ukraine’s east, where an eight-year conflict between Russia-backed rebels and Ukrainian forces has killed nearly 14,000 people, violence also spiked again.
One Ukrainian soldier was killed and six more sustained injuries after shelling by the rebels, Ukraine’s military said. Separatist officials reported several explosions on their territory overnight and three civilian deaths.
Since Friday, when separatist leaders in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions announced mass evacuations into Russia, more than 96,000 residents of the separatist areas have crossed the Russian border.
After weeks of rising tensions, Mr Putin took a series of steps this week that dramatically raised the stakes. First, he recognised the independence of those separatist regions, then he said that recognition extends to the large parts of the territories now held by Ukrainian forces, including the major Azov Sea port of Mariupol.
Finally, he asked for and was granted permission to use military force outside the country — effectively formalising a Russian military deployment to the rebel regions.
He suggested there was a way out of the crisis, laying out three conditions: for Kyiv to recognise Russia’s sovereignty over Crimea, to renounce its bid to join Nato and to partially demilitarise.
But it is unclear if there was any room for diplomacy since the first two demands had been previously rejected by Ukraine and the West as non-starters.
The Russian leader remained vague when asked whether he has sent any Russian troops into Ukraine and how far they could go, and the separatist leader in Donetsk, Denis Pushilin, said on Wednesday that there were no Russian troops in the region.
His remarks contradict those of Vladislav Brig, a member of the separatist local council in Donetsk, who told reporters on Tuesday that Russian troops had already moved in.
Australia, Canada and Japan joined the US, UK and European Union in announcing sanctions against Russia and after Germany halted the approval process for the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline.
British prime minister Boris Johnson, left, announced on Tuesday that three billionaire allies of the Russian president and five Russian banks would face punitive measures. UK foreign secretary Liz Truss has written in the Times that the UK is also considering sanctions for members of the Russian Duma and Federation Council, and extending Crimea’s territorial sanctions to the separatist controlled territories in the Donbas. “No UK individual or business will be able to deal with these territories until they are returned to Ukraine,” she said.
Australian prime minister Scott Morrison said on Wednesday the Russian government was “behaving like thugs and bullies” and there “must be consequences for Russia’s actions”. Eight senior Russian security officials and the oil and gas sectors will be targeted in the first round, he said, and security agencies were on alert for possible counter-actions by Russia such as espionage and cyber-attacks.
Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau said Canada was sending hundreds more troops to eastern Europe to bolster Nato forces and imposing new sanctions. Mr Trudeau said trade links with the two Russian-controlled territories in east Ukraine would be severed, the purchase of Russian sovereign debt banned, and Russian MPs and state-backed banks targeted.
Japan targeted Russian government bonds and trade and people linked to the self-proclaimed republics in Luhansk and Donetsk. “We strongly urge Russia to return to diplomatic process in resolving the development,” said prime minister Fumio Kishida. – AP/Guardian