Russia is not planning to send troops to eastern Ukraine "for now" but will do so in case of a "threat," a Foreign Ministry official said Tuesday after Moscow's parliament ratified cooperation deals with Ukraine's separatist republics.
Deputy Foreign Minister Andrei Rudenko said the treaties include the provision of "military aid" but added that "speculation" on troop deployments should be avoided.
"For now, no one is planning to send anything anywhere. If there is a threat, then we will provide assistance in accordance with the ratified treaties," he specified.
Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered Russia's military to act as peacekeepers in the breakaway Donetsk and Luhansk regions late Monday, just hours after he recognized them as being independent from Ukraine.
The recognition opened the door for direct Russian military involvement. Moscow provided no details or date for any deployment, with the order only saying that it "comes into force from the day it was signed."
Russia has moved tens of thousands of soldiers to regions near Ukraine's borders, with the West fearing Moscow could use them for an attack at any moment.
Meanwhile, Kremlin-backed separatist leader Denis Pushilin said on Tuesday that Moscow formally recognized the breakaway region of Donetsk within the wider boundaries of eastern Ukraine's Donetsk region, much of which is controlled by Ukrainian forces. Speaking on Russian state television, Pushilin said the matter of the territory not controlled by separatists would be resolved later.
"The border issue is not simple, it will be resolved later," he said.
Despite Russia's announcement, Western leaders said Tuesday that Russian troops have moved into rebel-held areas in eastern Ukraine. For weeks, Western powers have been bracing for an invasion as Russia massed an estimated 150,000 troops on three sides of neighboring Ukraine. They warned an attack would cause massive casualties, energy shortages in Europe and economic chaos around the globe – and promised swift and severe sanctions if it materialized.
They have also warned Moscow would look for cover to invade – and just such a pretext may have come Monday, with the recognition of independence of the two separatist regions in eastern Ukraine, where government troops have long fought Russia-backed rebels. The Kremlin then raised the stakes further Tuesday, by saying that recognition extends even to parts held by Ukrainian forces.
Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said that Russia has recognized the rebel regions’ independence "in borders that existed when they proclaimed" their independence in 2014 – broad territories that extend far beyond the areas now under rebel control and that include the major Black Sea port of Mariupol.
Ukrainian forces later reclaimed control of a large part of both regions early in the nearly eight-year separatist conflict that has killed over 14,000 people.
The recognition move opened the door for Putin to formalize his hold on the regions and send forces in, though Ukraine and its Western allies have long charged Russian troops have been fighting there for years. Moscow has denied those allegations.
Condemnation of Russia’s moves from around the world was quick. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said he would consider breaking diplomatic ties with Russia and Kyiv recalled its ambassador in Moscow.
But confusion over what exactly was happening on the border threatened to hobble a Western response.
"Russian troops have entered in Donbass," the name for the area where the two separatist regions are located, European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said in Paris on Tuesday. "We consider Donbass part of Ukraine," he added.
NATO announced an "extraordinary" meeting Tuesday with Ukraine's envoy. A statement from the alliance said NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg would brief media at 4 p.m. GMT after the talks with non-NATO member Ukraine.