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Ukraine declares state of emergency, summons citizens home from Russia

By Channel News Asia

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KYIV – Ukraine declared a state of emergency on Wednesday (Feb 23) and told its citizens in Russia to immediately come home, while Moscow began evacuating its Kyiv embassy, in the latest ominous signs for Ukrainians who fear an all-out Russian military onslaught.

Shelling intensified at the line of contact in eastern Ukraine, where Russian President Vladimir Putin recognised the independence of two Moscow-backed rebel regions this week and has ordered the deployment of Russian forces as “peacekeepers”.

Convoys of military equipment including nine tanks moved towards eastern Ukraine’s Donetsk from the direction of the Russian border, a Reuters witness reported.

But there was still no clear indication of whether Putin will launch a massed assault on Ukraine with the tens of thousands of troops he has gathered near the border. A US defence official said the Russian forces were “as ready as they can be” for an attack.

“Predicting what might be the next step of Russia, the separatists or the personal decisions of the Russian president – I cannot say,” Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said.

Ukrainian service members take part in tactical drills at a training ground in an unknown location in Ukraine, in this handout picture released Feb 22, 2022. (Photo: Press service of the Ukrainian Armed Forces General Staff/Handout via REUTERS)

That uncertainty and growing volley of sanctions on Russian interests by Washington and its allies have jolted financial markets, from oil and shares to wheat.

The rouble plunged around 3 per cent as the European Union blacklisted Russian lawmakers, freezing their assets and banning travel.

Washington targeted a major gas pipeline project from Russia, and London aimed for Russian debt.

“Today, I have directed my administration to impose sanctions on Nord Stream 2 AG and its corporate officers,” US President Joe Biden said, referring to the company building the pipeline.

The White House said the sanctions do not affect former German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, who has headed the shareholders committee of Nord Stream since 2005.

Oil prices reversed their early losses on the day, while Wall Street slipped on news of Ukraine’s emergency measures.

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, on Feb 22, 2022. (Photo: REUTERS/Alexander Ermochenko)

The 30-day state of emergency was approved by parliament. It restricts the freedom of movement of conscripted reservists, curbs the media and imposes personal document checks, according to a draft text. The restrictions come into force from Thursday.

Kyiv has also announced compulsory military service for all men of fighting age.

Ukrainian government and state websites, which have experienced outages in recent weeks blamed by Kyiv on cyber attacks, were again offline on Wednesday. Its parliament, cabinet and foreign ministry websites were affected.

Moscow denies planning an invasion and has described warnings as anti-Russian hysteria. But it has taken no steps to withdraw the troops deployed along Ukraine’s frontiers.

On Wednesday, it took down flags from its embassy in Kyiv, having ordered its diplomats to evacuate for safety reasons.

SANCTIONS

Western countries have been warning for weeks about the possibility of the bloodiest war in Europe for decades. That has not materialised yet but the threat remains, leaving policymakers to struggle with calibrating their response.

Russian President Vladimir Putin takes part in a wreath laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier by the Kremlin Wall on the Defender of the Fatherland Day in Moscow, Russia, on Feb 23, 2022. (Photo: Sputnik/Aleksey Nikolskyi/Kremlin via REUTERS)

Western leaders say tougher sanctions than so far unleashed are in reserve in case of a full-scale invasion, for example if Russia helps separatists seize parts of eastern Ukraine they claim but do not currently control.

The separatist leader of one breakaway region said on Wednesday that Ukrainian government forces should withdraw from such territory and take their weapons with them.

None of the sanctions so far directly targets Putin himself, or are expected to have serious consequences for Moscow, which is sitting on more than US$630 billion in international reserves.

Washington’s move to impose sanctions on 2 AG, a Swiss firm that built the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline to Germany and whose parent is Russian state-owned gas giant Gazprom, follows Germany on Tuesday freezing approvals for the pipeline, which is built but not yet operating.

EU leaders will hold an emergency summit on Thursday to discuss next steps. A second EU sanction package would include export controls.

FRESH TROOPS DEPLOYED

Ukraine’s military said one soldier had been killed and six wounded in increased shelling by pro-Russian separatists using heavy artillery, mortar bombs and Grad rocket systems in the two breakaway areas in the last 24 hours.

A Ukrainian frontier guard checks a man’s documents at the Hoptivka (Goptovka) crossing on the Ukrainian-Russian border in the Kharkiv region, Ukraine, on Feb 23, 2022. (Photo: REUTERS/Antonio Bronic)

New satellite imagery showed several fresh troop and equipment deployments in western Russia and more than 100 vehicles at a small airfield in southern Belarus, which borders Ukraine, according to US firm Maxar.

For months, Russia has presented the crisis mainly as a dispute with the West, demanding security guarantees, including a promise never to allow Ukraine to join NATO.

But the recognition of the separatist regions was accompanied by much stronger language against Ukraine.

In a TV address on Monday, Putin characterised the Ukrainian state as an artificial construct wrongly carved out of Russia by its enemies.

Some who saw the speech said they now feel menaced by a leader making decisions which no longer appeared rational.

“In the case of Putin, this is not a struggle for money or power: It’s about pride. Which means the mind is switched off. He can’t stop, and he can’t be stopped,” said Lilia, 72, a pensioner in a Kyiv suburb.

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said Russia could become a global pariah and urged it not to “completely isolate yourself worldwide.”

Putin said he was always open to finding diplomatic solutions but that “the interests of Russia and the security of our citizens are unconditional for us.”

SourceReuters

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