Russian President Vladimir Putin signs a document recognising the independence of separatist regions in eastern Ukraine in the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, Monday, Feb. 21, 2022. Image Credit: AP

Russian President Vladimir Putin announced Thursday a military operation in Ukraine to defend separatists in the east of the country. World leaders and the Ukrainian government have decried the 'invasion' by Russia. Here are the latest updates.

Dubai: "Ukraine never had a tradition of genuine statehood."

In a televised address on Monday, Russian President Vladimir Putin made a few hard-hitting statements, including the one above, while recognising the independence of Moscow-backed rebel regions in eastern Ukraine. A long-feared Russian movement of troops across the border appeared to be imminent Tuesday, if not already underway, after Putin ordered "peacekeeping" forces into separatist regions of eastern Ukraine.

The decree signed by Putin appeared to dash the slim remaining hopes of averting a major conflict in Europe that could cause massive casualties, energy shortages on the continent and economic chaos around the globe.

Here’s a look at how we got here.

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A thousand-year history

Politically and culturally, Ukraine and Russia have had a deeply intertwined and complicated past. This goes back over a thousand years when Kyiv, now Ukraine’s capital, was the centre of Kyivan Rus, the first Slavic state and the birthplace of both Ukraine and Russia. Over the centuries since then, Ukraine was remapped and divided up by competing powers, before being fully absorbed into the Soviet Union in 1922.

In 1991, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, Ukraine was declared an independent nation but uniting the east and west was still a long way off. The eastern and western populations are divided in their support for Russia, largely because of the centuries of being pulled in different directions.

Ukraine graphic crossroads timeline history
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The beginning of the rebellion

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 known as Donbas.

In April 2014, rebels, allegedly backed by Russia, seized government buildings in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, proclaimed the creation of “people's republics” and battled Ukrainian troops and volunteer battalions.

Ukraine and the West accused Russia of backing the rebels with troops and weapons. Moscow denied that, saying any Russians who fought there were volunteers.

The following month, the separatist regions held a popular vote to declare independence and make a bid to become part of Russia.

Death toll and battles

Amid ferocious battles involving tanks, heavy artillery and warplanes, Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was shot down over eastern Ukraine on July 17, 2014, killing all 298 people aboard. An international probe concluded that the passenger jet was downed by a Russia-supplied missile from the rebel-controlled territory in Ukraine. Moscow has denied any involvement.

The eight-year conflict has left more than 14,000 dead so far, an AP report said.

After a massive defeat of Ukrainian troops in August 2014, envoys from Kyiv, the rebels and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe signed a truce in the Belarusian capital of Minsk in September 2014.

The deal quickly collapsed and large-scale fighting resumed, leading to another major defeat for Ukrainian forces at Debaltseve in January-February of 2015.

The Minsk deal of 2015

France and Germany brokered another peace agreement, which was signed in Minsk in February 2015 by representatives of Ukraine, Russia and the rebels. It envisaged a new cease-fire, a pullback of heavy weapons and a series of moves toward a political settlement. A declaration backing the deal was signed by the leaders of Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany.

Children evacuated from the Donetsk region, the territory controlled by a pro-Russia separatist governments in eastern Ukraine, are seen through a train window as they wait to be taken to temporary housing, at the railway station in Nizhny Novgorod, Russia, Tuesday, Feb. 22, 2022 Image Credit: AP

The 2015 peace deal was a major diplomatic coup for the Kremlin, obliging Ukraine to grant special status to the separatist regions, allowing them to create their own police force and have a say in appointing local prosecutors and judges. It also envisaged that Ukraine could only regain control over the roughly 200-kilometre border with Russia in rebel regions after they get self-rule and hold OSCE-monitored local elections - balloting that would almost certainly keep pro-Moscow rebels in power there. The Minsk document helped end full-scale fighting, but the situation has remained tense and regular skirmishes have continued.

Keeping control

The Minsk document helped end full-scale fighting, but the situation has remained tense and regular skirmishes have continued.

With the Minsk deal stalled, Moscow's hope to use rebel regions to directly influence Ukraine's politics has failed but the frozen conflict has drained Kyiv's resources and effectively stymied its goal of joining NATO.

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Moscow also has worked to secure its hold on the rebel regions by handing out more than 720,000 Russian passports to roughly one-fifth of their population of about 3.6 million. It has provided economic and financial assistance to the separatist territories, but the aid has been insufficient to alleviate the massive damage from fighting and shore up the economy. The Donbas region accounted for about 16% of Ukraine's GDP before the conflict.

Amid soaring tensions over the Russian troop concentration near Ukraine, France and Germany embarked on renewed efforts to encourage compliance with the 2015 deal, in hopes that it could help defuse the current standoff. This has yielded no results.

Recognising independence of rebel regions

Putin’s recognition of the independence of Moscow-backed rebel regions in eastern Ukraine, Donetsk and Luhansk, follows days of heightened tensions in Ukraine's eastern industrial heartland and effectively shatters the Minsk peace agreements and will further fuel tensions with the West.

On Friday, separatist leaders released video statements announcing the evacuation of civilians in the face of what they described as a Ukrainian "aggression." The data embedded in the video indicated that their statements had been pre-recorded two days earlier when the situation was still relatively calm, suggesting a deliberate plan to try to sever the regions from Ukraine.

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A pro-Russia demonstrator wears a vest bearing a depiction of Russian President Vladimir Putin and the words, "Motherland! Freedom!" during a rally in Donetsk, Ukraine, Sunday, March 16, 2014. Image Credit: AP

The move follows several days of shelling that erupted along the line of contact in Donetsk and Luhansk. Ukraine and the West accused Moscow of fomenting the tensions to create a pretext for an invasion. Russia, in turn, accused Ukraine of trying to reclaim rebel-held territories by force, a claim that Kyiv strongly rejected.

The rebel chiefs put out new video statements Monday urging Putin to recognise their regions' independence and the Russian leader responded quickly by convening a carefully orchestrated meeting of his Security Council and then signing the recognition decrees in a televised ceremony.

Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelensky on Tuesday demanded "clear support" from the West after Russia recognised two eastern separatist regions and then ordered in troops to back up their independence claims.

In an address delivered after urgent consultations with world leaders, Zelensky said Ukraine was "not afraid of anything or anyone", calling the Kremlin's step "a violation of the sovereignty and territorial integrity" of the former Soviet state

United Nations Security Council meets after Russia recognized two breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine as independent entities, in New York City, U.S. February 21, 2022. Image Credit: Reuters

What does recognition of breakaway Ukraine regions mean

Russian-backed separatists in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions - collectively known as the Donbass - broke away from Ukrainian government control in 2014 and proclaimed themselves independent "people's republics", until now unrecognised.

For the first time, Russia is saying it does not regard the Donbass as part of Ukraine. That could pave the way for Moscow to send military forces into the separatist regions openly, using the argument that it is intervening as an ally to protect them against Ukraine. A Russian parliament member and former Donetsk political leader, Alexander Borodai, told Reuters last month that the separatists would then look to Russia to help them wrest control of parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions still under the control of Ukrainian forces.

If that happened, it could lead to open military conflict between Russia and Ukraine.

Why is Russia doing this?

“Ukraine's membership in NATO poses a direct threat to Russia's security,” Putin said.

Russia says it wants Western guarantees that NATO won't allow Ukraine and other former Soviet countries to join as members and Putin said Monday that a simple moratorium on Ukraine's accession wouldn't be enough. Moscow has also demanded the alliance halt weapons deployments to Ukraine and roll back its forces from Eastern Europe.

Putin warned Monday that the Western rejection of Moscow's demands gives Russia the right to take other steps to protect its security.

A military truck drives along a street after Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the deployment of Russian troops to two breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine following the recognition of their independence, in the separatist-controlled city of Donetsk, Ukraine February 22, 2022. Image Credit: Reuters

What is not being openly discussed is that in Georgia, Russia used recognition of the breakaway regions to justify an open-ended military presence in a neighbouring former Soviet republic in an attempt to indefinitely thwart Georgia's NATO aspirations by denying it full control of its own territory. The same considerations could apply to Ukraine.

What next? Invasion or de-escalation

With an estimated 150,000 Russian troops massed on three sides of Ukraine, the US has warned that Moscow has already decided to invade. The Kremlin has repeatedly denied it intends to attack even as it sustains a military buildup near Ukraine and extends military drills in Belarus.

Still, US President Joe Biden and Putin tentatively agreed to a meeting brokered by French President Emmanuel Macron in a last-ditch effort to avoid war.

However, Russia said Monday there were "no concrete plans" yet for a summit between Vladimir Putin and Joe Biden, hours after the White House said it had agreed in principle to a meeting to help resolve the standoff over Ukraine.

"President Putin explained very clearly that we're not against summits or meetings, but before getting together, especially in such a tense atmosphere, it's important to understand what these summits would result in," Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told reporters in Moscow.

World reactions

World leaders scrambled Tuesday to condemn Russian President Vladimir Putin - and to signal possible sanctions - after he ordered his forces into separatist regions of eastern Ukraine.

A conflict could devastate Ukraine and cause huge economic damage across Europe, which is heavily dependent on Russian energy. But Asian nations are also worried.

Leaders from across the globe, including the US, the UK, South Korea, Japan, New Zealand and Australia called on Russia to “unconditionally withdraw” from Ukrainian territory and stop threatening its neighbours.

Possible sanctions

Moscow faces sanctions and international condemnation for abandoning the Minsk process after long maintaining that it was committed to it. It will also be saddled indefinitely with responsibility for two territories ravaged by eight years of war and in need of massive economic support.

European Union ambassadors will meet to discuss a plan for sanctions on Russia. A question now becomes what the US and its allies would define as an invasion, and what would trigger bigger sanctions. Some European nations have been wary of the economic fallout they could face from penalising Russia, especially given their reliance on it for natural gas.

In this photo provided by Ukrainian Foreign Ministry Press Office, Czech, Slovak and Austrian foreign ministers Jan Lipavsky, Ivan Korcok and Alexander Schallenberg talk with a Ukrainian soldier during their visit to the border crossing between Ukraine and the territory controlled by pro-Russian militants in the Donetsk region, Ukraine, Monday, Feb. 7, 2022. Image Credit: AP

The European Commission will propose a limited package of sanctions to EU ambassadors Tuesday morning, according to a diplomat familiar with the preparations. The proposal will include a limited listing of individuals and entities and could include a ban on output from mines as well as a prohibition on trading with the affected regions.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson says the UK will introduce “immediate” economic sanctions against Russia, and warned that President Vladimir Putin is bent on “a full-scale invasion of Ukraine.”

Johnson said Putin had “completely torn up international law” and British sanctions would target not just the regions of Donetsk and Luhansk but "Russian economic interests as hard as we can.''

This sentiment has been reiterated by global leaders. The US plans to announce new sanctions Tuesday in response to Russian actions on Ukraine, according to a Biden administration official. The US is coordinating with allies and partners on that announcement.

How sanctions can target Russia

Russia has been under Western sanctions since its 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine. More punitive measures were added after a former Russian spy was poisoned in Britain in 2018.

Here are some ways sanctions could target Russia:

Banks and financial firms

Some smaller Russian state-owned banks are already under sanctions: Washington imposed curbs on Bank Rossiya in 2014 for its close ties to Kremlin officials. According to sources, the Biden administration has prepared a sweeping measure to hurt the Russian economy which would cut the "correspondent" banking relationships between targeted Russian banks and U.S. banks that enable international payments, Reuters reported.

Washington could also place certain Russian individuals and companies on the Specially Designated Nationals (SDN) list, effectively kicking them out of the US banking system, banning their trade with Americans and freezing their US assets.

Sources familiar with the planned measures said VTB Bank , Sberbank, VEB, and Gazprombank are possible targets. It is unclear whether Russian banks would be added to the SDN list, but both types of sanctions could hit Russia hard and make it difficult to transact in US dollars.

Russia's large banks are deeply integrated into the global financial system, meaning sanctions could be felt far beyond its borders.


Sanctioning persons via asset freezes and travel bans is a commonly used tool and the United States, the EU and Britain already have such sanctions in place against a number of Russian individuals.

The EU on Monday imposed sanctions on five people who were involved in a Russian parliamentary election in annexed Crimea in September 2021.

While the United States has used the SDN designation to sanction oligarchs deemed to be "bad actors" in the past, it has become more cautious in recent years after 2018 sanctions on the owner of Rusal saw aluminium prices skyrocket and force Washington to backtrack.

A bill unveiled by U.S. Senate Democrats in January aims for sweeping sanctions against top Russian government and military officials, including Putin, and President Joe Biden has said he would be ready to consider personal sanctions on the Russian president.

Curbing chips

The White House has told the US chip industry to be ready for new restrictions on exports to Russia if Moscow attacks Ukraine, including potentially blocking Russia's access to global electronics supplies.

Similar measures were deployed during the Cold War, when technology sanctions kept the Soviet Union technologically backward and crimped economic growth.

Energy Corporates and Nord Stream 2

Ukraine Europe gas imports graphic
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The US and the EU already have sanctions in place on Russia's energy and defence sectors, with state-owned gas company Gazprom, its oil arm Gazpromneft and oil producers Lukoil, Rosneft and Surgutneftegaz facing various types of curbs on exports/imports and debt-raising.

Sanctions could be widened and deepened, with one possible option being to prevent companies settling in US dollars.

Germany on Tuesday halted the Nord Stream 2 Baltic Sea gas pipeline project, designed to double the flow of Russian gas direct to Germany, after Russia formally recognised two breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine.

Nord Stream 2, a recently completed pipeline from Russia to Germany that has yet to win regulatory approval, would also be subject to sanctions by the European Union, Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer said.

Europe's dependence on Russian energy supplies weakens the West's hand when considering sanctions in this sector.

Switching off SWIFT

One of the harshest measures would be to disconnect the Russian financial system from SWIFT, which handles international financial transfers and is used by more than 11,000 financial institutions in over 200 countries.

In 2012, SWIFT disconnected Iranian banks as international sanctions tightened against Tehran over its nuclear programme.

Iran lost half its oil export revenues and 30% of foreign trade, the Carnegie Moscow Centre think tank said.

Among Western countries, the United States and Germany would stand to lose the most from such a move, as their banks are the most frequent SWIFT users with Russian banks, said Maria Shagina at the Carnegie Moscow Center.

Sovereign debt

Access to Russian bonds has become increasingly restricted and sanctions could be tightened further, with a ban on secondary market trading of both new Eurobond and new Russian rouble bonds known as OFZs floated as an option.

In April 2021, Biden barred US investors from buying new Russian rouble bonds over the accusations of election meddling.

Sanctions imposed in 2015 made future Russian dollar debt ineligible for many investors and key indexes. Those measures have cut Russia's external debt by 33% since early 2014 -- from $733 billion to $489 billion in the third quarter of 2021. Lower debt improves a country's balance sheet on the surface, but deprives it of financing sources that could contribute to economic growth and development.

- With inputs from agencies