Top U.S. officials have promised for months to target Russia with crippling sanctions in the event that Moscow opts for a military assault on Ukraine. But on Monday evening, a senior administration official declined, during a call with reporters, to specify whether the apparent move of Russian “peacekeeping” forces into Ukrainian breakaway territories today would trigger those measures, opting for a more ambiguous approach as Washington formulates a response.
After Russian president Vladimir Putin signed orders recognizing the independence of Moscow-backed governments in Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk territories today, Reuters reported that Putin ordered a Russian “peacekeeping operation” to those regions. Unconfirmed footage of Russian personnel crossing into Ukrainian territory held by pro-Kremlin governments circulated on Twitter.
In response to Putin’s recognition orders this afternoon, the White House announced an executive order that would prevent Americans from doing business transactions in Donetsk and Luhansk and authorize new sanctions against people affiliated with those regions’ governments. This followed Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s statement last week warning of a “swift and firm response” from the U.S. and its allies to Russian recognition of the breakaway regions. But few Americans are thought to have business ties in the Donbas separatist regions.
The senior administration official, during this evening’s call, clarified that more sanctions will come tomorrow and specified that “these measures respond to Russia’s recognition gambit. They are not the swift and severe economic measures we’ve been preparing in coordination with allies and partners should Russia further invade Ukraine.”
But the senior official, who was asked by multiple reporters whether the White House considers the latest Russian troop movements to constitute an invasion of Ukraine, also declined to specify what actually would trigger those retaliatory U.S. sanctions.
Each time, the official responded ambiguously, first pointing out that the U.S. and its allies have said since 2014 that Russian troops were already in eastern Ukraine, and that it was Moscow’s position that there were no Russian troops in the Donbas region of the country.
“We’re going to be looking very closely at what they do over the coming hours and days, and our response will be measured according to their actions,” the official said.
For eight years, Russia denied that it had troops in eastern Ukraine, though Western governments pointed out that it did have a presence there. Late last year, a Russian court filing also revealed the stationing of Russian troops in the region.
During the briefing, another reporter asked whether Russian troops moving into Donbas would constitute an invasion.
“They are now apparently making the decision to do this in a more overt and open way, but this has been the state of affairs in that region and a big part of why it’s been so unstable since 2014,” the senior official said.
The official, asked a similar question again later, denied that he was saying a Russian troop movement into Donetsk and Luhansk would not be considered by the White House not to be a new invasion of Ukraine: “We will observe and assess what action Russia actually takes and respond accordingly.”