Breakaway territories in eastern Ukraine are emerging as ground zero in what is expected to be a larger conflict with Russia, triggering sanctions and raising fears that efforts at diplomacy have failed to avoid a large-scale invasion.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s recognition of two regions in Ukraine as independent — the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic — has drawn global condemnation, with the U.S. and several European countries agreeing to move quickly to respond with economic and financial penalties.

President Biden on Monday imposed sanctions blocking any financial transactions with entities and people in the two separatist regions, while Germany on Tuesday said it would move to halt the Nord Stream 2 pipeline that was set to bring natural gas from Russia to Germany. Other sanctions are also expected to be announced by Western leaders.

The Donetsk and Luhansk territories are located in southeastern Ukraine, in a region called the Donbas and that borders Russia. Russia took advantage of unrest in the territories in 2014 to support pro-Russian separatists amid a popular revolution in Ukraine that ousted the pro-Russian government in Kyiv and pushed for a more transparent, democratic legislature that aligned with the West.
 
The Donbas region has a population of more than 3.6 million that is largely Russian-speaking, with coal mining and steel production its largest industries.

Putin has condemned the 2014 revolution as a “coup” and sought to portray Russian support for separatists in the Donbas as protecting historically ethnic Russians, similar to his justification that same year for invading and occupying Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula. 

“I would like to underscore that Ukraine is not just a neighboring country to us, it is an inherent part of our own history, culture, spiritual space,” Putin said in translated remarks on Monday, part of a rambling speech where he announced his recognition of Donetsk and Luhansk.

“They are our comrades, relatives — not only colleagues, friends, but also our family, people we have blood and family ties with.” 

The Donbas has been split along a frontline battlefield since 2014, called “the point of contact,” with Ukrainian forces facing off against pro-Russian separatist militias that are largely supported militarily and financially by the Kremlin. Moscow has reportedly provided an estimated 800,000 Russian passports to Ukrainian citizens in the region. 

Russia has also provided its own troops on the ground, although Moscow denies this. At least 15,000 have been killed in the fighting over the past eight years.

Diplomatic efforts to establish cease-fires occurred in 2014 and 2015, known as the Minsk agreements, and were endorsed by the Ukrainian government, the separatist leaders, Russia, France, Germany and regional security organizations such as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. 

The Minsk agreements took into account self-governing aspirations of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions but maintained them as part of Ukraine. 

“We are not trying to take any territory of foreign countries. I would like to confirm that Donbas [Donetsk] and Lugansk [Luhansk] is a part of Ukraine,” Russian Ambassador to the U.S. Anatoly Antonov told CBS’s "Face the Nation" on Sunday.

The U.S., Ukraine and its allies and partners have criticized Russia as failing to engage seriously with the Minsk agreements and condemned Putin’s recognition on Monday of Donetsk and Luhansk as an overt rejection of diplomacy that served to avoid open conflict. 

Putin on Monday night ordered Russian troops into the region — under what the Kremlin described as a “peacekeeping” mission — raising fears from the West that Moscow was firing the opening salvo of an overt military campaign into Ukraine, one that would put the capital Kyiv under threat. 

“There have been Russian troops in the Donbas for eight years now,” a senior Biden administration official told reporters in a briefing Monday night. “Russia has denied this. Now Russia looks like it’s going to be operating openly in that region, and we are going to be responding accordingly.”

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