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Russia still planning large-scale attack on Ukraine: NATO chief

A tank drives along a street after Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the deployment of Russian troops to two breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine following recognition of their independence, in the city of Donetsk, controlled by the separatists, in Ukraine, February 22, 2022. REUTERS / Alexander Ermochenko

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A tank drives along a street after Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the deployment of Russian troops to two breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine following recognition of their independence, in the city of Donetsk, controlled by the separatists, in Ukraine, February 22, 2022. REUTERS / Alexander Ermochenko

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said on Tuesday the alliance believed Russia was still planning a big assault on Ukraine after Moscow recognized two breakaway regions in the east of the former Soviet republic. .

He spoke as the West took more action to try to discourage Russia from going on the offensive in Ukraine, with Germany holding back a new gas pipeline and Britain hitting sanctions on Russian banks.

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“Everything indicates that Russia continues to plan a full-scale attack on Ukraine,” Stoltenberg told a press conference in Brussels. “We continue to call on Russia to back down…it’s never too late not to attack.

Russia’s parliament approved treaties with the two regions a day after Russian President Vladimir Putin said he recognized the independence of the two enclaves in eastern Ukraine, which adjoin Russia and are controlled by Russian-backed fighters since 2014.

Putin said the territory covered all of Donetsk and Luhansk regions in eastern Ukraine, not just parts currently controlled by separatists. The move seemed to increase the likelihood of conflict.

He also signed a decree on the deployment of Russian forces there, and on Tuesday Russia’s upper house of parliament formally granted his request to use troops abroad with immediate effect.

A deputy defense minister has asked the chamber to deploy troops to Donbass – an umbrella term for the two regions.

The prospect of an energy supply disruption and fears of war – stoked by reports of shelling in some areas and unmarked tank movements overnight in the rebel-held city of Donetsk – have rattled international financial markets and pushed oil prices to their highest level since 2014.

In Donetsk, some residents celebrated, with cars displaying Russian flags and honking their horns. But several explosions were heard in the city on Tuesday, and some people wondered if Putin’s measures would bring peace.

Germany is Russia’s biggest natural gas customer, and Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s decision to freeze the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline – built but awaiting approval – was widely seen as one of the most strong that Europe can take.

Scholz said he has instructed his economy ministry to take steps to ensure certification cannot take place at this time.

“This is a morally, politically and practically correct step in the current circumstances,” Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba tweeted. “True leadership means tough decisions in tough times. Germany’s decision proves that.”

The Kremlin regretted Germany’s decision and said it hoped the delay was temporary. Putin said Russia “aims to continue the uninterrupted supply” of energy to the world.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and French President Emmanuel Macron meanwhile agreed on Tuesday to continue working together to target those who support what Johnson called Putin’s “aggressive approach”.

“Russia’s actions not only threaten Ukraine’s sovereignty, but constitute a flagrant attack on freedom and democracy, the leaders agreed,” according to a joint statement.

EU DISCUSS SANCTIONS

Russian parliamentary approval of friendship treaties with the two breakaway regions could pave the way for Moscow to establish military bases there.

US President Joe Biden has signed an executive order to end US business activity and, in addition, potentially tough new US sanctions and export controls were due to be announced on Tuesday.

EU foreign ministers in Paris were discussing sanctions that would hit Russian banks. Britain has announced sanctions against three Russian billionaires and five banks.

Britain’s Johnson also said it was “inconceivable” that the European Champions League soccer final could take place in Russia as planned in May.

Germany convened an appeal by foreign ministers from the Group of Seven industrialized nations, in which they agreed to condemn Russia’s actions, according to the Japanese foreign minister.

The United States initially limited itself to measures directly related to the breakaway regions, apparently preferring to keep in reserve a larger set of sanctions against Russia itself.

Russia’s recognition of separatist areas and Putin’s authorization of what he described as peacekeeping troops there still come a long way from the large-scale massive invasion that Western countries said they feared that Moscow was planning. That leaves Western leaders trying to guess Putin’s intentions regarding up to 190,000 troops deployed around Ukraine’s borders.

But Western countries saw ominous signs in Putin’s rambling televised speech on Monday, in which he called Ukraine’s leadership illegitimate and the Ukrainian state contrived.

Ukrainians consider these descriptions offensive and false. Kyiv is older than Moscow, and while parts of today’s Ukraine were captured by Russian czars, other parts were not ruled by Moscow until World War II.

Kristina Kvien, the top US diplomat in Ukraine, said Putin’s “scandalous statements…were delusional, reflecting a distorted view reminiscent not of a world leader, but of Europe’s worst authoritarians.”

President Volodymr Zelenskiy has said Ukraine may sever diplomatic ties with Russia and urged its allies not to wait for further escalation to adopt sanctions.

‘RUSSIA PUNISHMENT’

The West, which imposed sanctions on Russia after it annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, looks set to withhold its toughest sanctions for now.

EU sanctions could include blacklisting hundreds of politicians and officials, a ban on trading Russian government bonds or a ban on the import and export of separatist entities, officials said. diplomats and EU officials.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov dismissed the threat of sanctions.

“Our European, American, British colleagues will not stop and calm down until they have exhausted all their possibilities for the so-called punishment of Russia,” he said.

Russian-backed separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk broke from Ukrainian government control in 2014 and declared themselves independent “people’s republics” after a pro-Moscow Ukrainian president was ousted in Kyiv.

“I know that the blood I shed with my comrades and our labors and efforts and civilian casualties have not been in vain all this time,” said Dmitry, a former member of a pro-Russian militia. , in Donetsk on Tuesday.