Russia has "undeniably" begun an invasion of Ukraine by declaring regions in its east independent and will now face billions of dollars in sanctions and additional U.S. troops deployed to the Baltic states, President Joe Biden said Tuesday.
An infantry battalion based in Italy, as well as F-35 Joint Strike Fighter jets and Apache attack helicopters, will be moving to Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania and be in place later this week to defend the NATO alliance, the Biden administration said. Thousands of U.S. troops have already deployed to Poland, Romania, Lithuania and Germany.
The financial penalties and troop movements were the latest response from the U.S. and NATO allies after Russian President Vladimir Putin began moving troops into the two separatist regions where Moscow-backed rebels have been fighting Ukraine's western-aligned central government for years.
"He bizarrely asserted that these regions are no longer part of Ukraine and they're sovereign territory. Put simply, Russia just announced those carving out a big chunk of Ukraine," Biden said in an address to the nation Tuesday afternoon.
Putin's incursion into Ukraine was read by the U.S. and allies as the start of his bid to seize control of the former Soviet republic after spending nearly a year massing more than 150,000 troops at its borders, though no open battlefield violence beyond some shelling between Ukraine and separatist factions in the country’s east had yet commenced. The West repeatedly warned Putin is likely to stage a false flag attack as a pretext to a full-blown invasion.
The first tranche of sanctions announced by Biden targets two Russian banking firms, including the country's fifth-largest bank, holding $50 billion in assets, and a bank with $35 billion in assets that finances Putin's military activity, according to a senior administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Five Russian oligarchs and their families were also targeted by the sanctions, in a bid to punish the country's elite for Putin's moves on Ukraine.
"The full block of these banks means they can no longer make any transactions with the U.S. or Europe and their assets in our respective financial systems are frozen," the official said in a briefing to reporters. "If this invasion proceeds, we are ready to press a button to take further action on the very largest Russian financial institutions."
Germany, after talks with the U.S., also announced it halted the planned Nord Stream 2 pipeline with Russia, which had invested $11 billion in the project in hopes of selling fuel to Europe.
Biden's order Tuesday will also move more U.S. military hardware east, including up to eight F-35 jets from Germany to NATO's eastern flank; 20 AH-64 Apache attack helicopters from Germany to the Baltic region; and 12 Apaches with an attack aviation task force from Greece to Poland, according to a senior defense official.
The U.S. was already in the process of deploying about 6,000 soldiers to Europe to bolster NATO, though Biden has made clear that the United States will not fight to defend Ukraine, which is not a member of the alliance. Last week, a dozen Air Force F-35 fighter jets and 350 airmen from Hill Air Force Base, Utah, arrived in Germany, and the U.S. announced a planned sale of 250 Abrams tanks to Poland.
"Russia's latest invasion is threatening the peace and security and prosperity of Ukraine and [the] trans-Atlantic community," Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said Tuesday during a meeting with the Ukrainian foreign minister.
Austin warned during a trip to NATO's eastern flank last week that Russia was "uncoiling and now poised to strike" Ukraine.
Putin claimed he was sending troops into the Donetsk and Luhansk separatist regions to "maintain peace," and the Russian parliament granted him the authority Tuesday to use military force outside of Russia in a symbolic vote. He has also claimed that the regions cover a wider stretch of territory now controlled by the Ukrainian government.
The area saw an increased amount of shelling last week, including damage to a school in Ukraine-held territory, ratcheting up concerns that the violence could be a precursor to a full-scale invasion.
The Russian president, who annexed the Crimea peninsula in 2014 despite international condemnation, has demanded that Ukraine never be allowed to join NATO and that the alliance pull back from eastern Europe.
"He is setting up a rationale to take more territory by force, in my view," Biden said in his address Tuesday. "This is the beginning of a Russian invasion of Ukraine."
-- Travis Tritten can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Tritten.