Columns of military vehicles including tanks were seen in the early hours of Tuesday on the outskirts of Donetsk, the capital of one of the breakaway east Ukraine regions, after Russian President Vladimir Putin recognized the regions as independent states.
The Reuters reporter saw about five tanks in a column on the edge of the city and two more in another part of town.
No insignia were visible, but the appearance of the tanks came hours after Putin signed friendship treaties with the two separatist regions and ordered Russian troops to deploy on what Moscow called a peacekeeping operation.
Reuters reporters in Donetsk had not seen tanks on the streets in previous days.
Russian President Vladimir Putin recognized two breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine as independent on Monday and ordered the Russian army to launch what Moscow called a peacekeeping operation into the area, upping the ante in a crisis the West fears could unleash a major war.
Footage of Russian troops and tanks in Donetsk, in eastern Ukraine, has been shared on social media by Ukrainian lawmaker Lisa Yasko.
“Russian social media channels spread this video of tanks in Donetsk,” Yasko wrote.
The White House said they fully expect Russia to take military actions, with all the signs on the ground pointing to it and not diplomacy. An intelligence official speaking to CNN claims that Russian troops could be in the Moscow-backed regions of eastern Ukraine within the evening.
Putin told Russia’s defense ministry to deploy troops into the two regions to “keep the peace” in a decree issued shortly after he announced recognition for Russia-backed separatists there, drawing US and European condemnation and vows of new sanctions.
It was not immediately clear whether the Russian military action was the start of an invasion of Ukraine that the United States and its allies have warned about for weeks. There was no word on the size of the force Putin was dispatching, when they would cross the border and exactly what their mission would be.
In a lengthy televised address, Putin, looking visibly angry, described Ukraine as an integral part of Russia’s history and said eastern Ukraine was ancient Russian lands and that he was confident the Russian people would support his decision.
Defying Western warnings against such a move, Putin had announced his decision in phone calls to the leaders of Germany and France earlier, both of whom voiced disappointment, the Kremlin said.
Moscow’s action may well torpedo a last-minute bid for a summit with US President Joe Biden to prevent Russia from invading Ukraine. The rouble extended its losses as Putin spoke, at one point sliding beyond 80 per dollar.
Biden will issue an executive order soon prohibiting “new investment, trade, and financing by US persons to, from, or in” the two breakaway regions, the White House said. It will “also provide authority to impose sanctions on any person determined to operate in those areas of Ukraine,” White House spokesperson Jen Psaki said in a statement.
Putin had earlier confirmed the change of status recognition while warning Kiev and the West that Russia’s military will act against any further aggression. He warned that Ukraine’s government must now halt all military actions against Donbas or whatever happens next will be on them.