The United States expects Russian troops to move into the separatist regions as soon as tonight or tomorrow, a senior official familiar with latest intelligence told CNN.
The official added that the troops will enter Donbas in the name of a peacekeeping mission.
“Russian troops have continued to move closer to the border,” the official said, further adding that they see plans being laid for an invasion at any moment.
When Ukraine’s Moscow-friendly president was driven from office by mass protests in February 2014, Russia responded by annexing Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula. It then threw its weight behind an insurgency in the mostly Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine region, explained a report by the Associated Press.
Donetsk and Luhansk regions – collectively known as the Donbas – broke away from Ukrainian government control in April 2014 and proclaimed themselves independent “people’s republics”. They are home to Russia-backed rebels who have been fighting Ukrainian troops for around eight years. More than 14,000 people have died.
The following month, the separatist regions held a popular vote to declare independence and make a bid to become part of Russia. Moscow hasn’t accepted the motion, just used the regions as a tool to keep Ukraine in its orbit and prevent it from joining NATO.
While Moscow has always denied any involvement in the conflict between the region and Ukraine, it has helped the separatists in multiple ways, including through financial aid, COVID-19 vaccine supplies, passports, and covert military support, according to ABC News.
If Russian troops do enter the regions for “peacekeeping” functions, it will be the first time that Moscow would be officially entering the area.
Russia is also expected to back treaties with Donetsk and Luhansk to obtain the power to build military bases there, according to a BBC report.
Over the years, Russian passports have also been granted to a wide number of people in both regions.
This is the first time that Russia is saying it does not consider the regions a part of Ukraine. This way, it may be able to send forces to Donbas openly – in the guise of offering protection to the area against Ukraine.
Such involvement could invariably lead to military conflict between Russia and Ukraine.
US representative from Virginia’s 11th congressional district, Gerry Connolly, said that ordering of Russian troops into two separatist pro-Moscow regions in eastern Ukraine is not a peacekeeping operation.
“This is not a peacekeeping operation, and we need to stop enabling Putin with even the use of that word. These are units of the Russian military who are using the pretext of the independence of Russian-occupied sovereign territory of Ukraine to further that occupation and to expand it,” Connolly told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer.
“Right now, Russia’s surrogates and Russian troops occupy about a third of Donetsk to Luhansk. What he proposes to do immediately is to extend that to the remaining two-thirds. That is an invasion by any sense of the imagination,” he added.
Meanwhile, President Joe Biden condemned his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin’s decision to recognize the two breakaway regions of Ukraine.
“Biden strongly condemned Russian President Putin’s decision to purportedly recognize the “independence” of the so-called DNR and LNR regions of Ukraine,” on a call with Ukraine President Volodymr Zelenskiy, the White House said.