MOSCOW — Russian President Vladimir Putin is ordering forces to “maintain peace” in separatist regions of eastern Ukraine, hours after the Kremlin recognized the area's independence.
The announcement has raised fears that an invasion may be imminent, if not already underway. But it is not immediately clear when, or whether, Russian troops would enter Ukraine.
The announcement follows a day of fast-moving developments in which Putin announced the recognition of separatist regions in Ukraine. The United States and the European Union responded by saying they would impose sanctions.
The move paves the way for Russia to provide the groups with military support, which could lead to a direct battle with Ukraine.
The Associated Press reports that Putin blamed NATO for the threat, calling the alliance threat an existential threat to Russia.
Tensions have reached a boiling point in the region. In recent days, there's been a spike in skirmishes in those regions that Western powers believe Russia could use as a pretext for an attack on Ukraine. Heavy shelling was reported in the region throughout the weekend.
With an estimated 150,000 Russian troops massed on three sides of Ukraine, the U.S. has warned that Moscow has already decided to invade.
Still, the American and Russian presidents tentatively agreed to a possible meeting in a last-ditch effort to avoid war.
Russia has consistently denied that it plans to invade Ukraine, and Putin has also proposed measures he says will improve security in Europe, including a promise not to extend an invitation to join NATO to Ukraine and the removal of the alliance's troops from Eastern Europe. The U.S. has said those proposals are nonstarters.
The U.S. has ordered thousands of troops toward Ukraine in recent weeks as Russia has grown more aggressive in its stance. The Pentagon says those troops were not being sent to fight but to reassure allies.