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.
While Russia’s troop movements were still not clear, leaders in Asia and elsewhere voiced strong support for Ukraine’s sovereignty, along with worries about how a European war could hurt global and local economies and endanger foreign nationals trapped in Ukraine.
“Ukraine’s sovereignty and territory must be respected,” South Korean President Moon Jae-in said. “A military clash against the wishes of the international community … would bring huge ramifications in the politics and economies of not only Europe, but to the whole world.”
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.
Moon instructed his officials to prepare for the economic fallout in South Korea if the Ukraine crisis worsens and U.S.-backed nations levy stringent economic sanctions on Russia.
South Korea’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Choi Young-sam said diplomats were trying to persuade 63 of its nationals who currently remain in Ukraine to leave.
Hopes are dwindling that a major conflict can be averted. Putin’s directive came hours after he recognized the two Ukrainian separatist regions, setting up Russian military support and antagonizing Western leaders who regard it as a breach of world order.
Putin blamed NATO for the current crisis and called the U.S.-led alliance an existential threat to Russia.
Some nations publicly signaled a willingness to pursue punishment.
Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida criticized Russia for violating Ukrainian territorial integrity and said his country would discuss possible “severe actions,” including sanctions, with the international community.
Putin’s “actions are unacceptable, and we express our strong condemnation,” Kishida told reporters Tuesday. “Japan is watching the development with grave concern.”
Japan has a separate territorial dispute with Moscow over four Russian-controlled northern islands taken at the end of World War II. The standoff has prevented the signing of a peace treaty between the two sides.
The global condemnation came amid rising skirmishes in the eastern regions of Ukraine that Western powers believe Russia could use as a pretext for an attack on the Europe-facing democracy that has defied Moscow’s attempts to pull it back into its orbit.
New Zealand Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta said there was no basis under international law for Putin to recognize the Ukrainian separatist regions.
“We are concerned that this is a calculated act by President Putin to create a pretext for invasion, which would be a clear act of aggression. We again call for urgent diplomatic efforts to find a peaceful resolution,” Mahuta said in a statement.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said Russia should “unconditionally withdraw” from Ukrainian territory and stop threatening its neighbors. Morrison said Russia’s actions were “unacceptable; it’s unprovoked, it’s unwarranted.”
“It is important that like-minded countries who denounce this sort of behavior do stick together, and I can assure you that the moment that other countries put in place strong and severe sanctions on Russia, we will be in lockstep with them and we will be moving just as quickly,” he said.
The threat of new sanctions underscores the West’s difficulty in preventing a military conflict that’s long been portrayed as inevitable.
NATO-member Turkey, which has close relations to both Ukraine and Russia, criticized Russia’s decision to recognize the independence of the regions in eastern Ukraine.
A Turkish Foreign Ministry statement released Tuesday said: “We find this decision by Russia unacceptable and reject it.”
U.S. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken spoke by phone with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba to reaffirm U.S. support for Ukraine.
The White House issued an executive order to restrict investment and trade in the separatist regions, and additional measures — likely sanctions — were to be announced Tuesday. Those sanctions are independent of what Washington has prepared in the event of a Russian invasion, according to a senior administration official who briefed reporters on the condition of anonymity.
At the United Nations, meanwhile, an emergency meeting of the Security Council on Monday night was called by Ukraine, the U.S. and six other countries.
Russia’s U.N. ambassador said the United States and its Western allies were egging on Ukraine toward “an armed provocation.”
Vassily Nebenzia accused Ukraine of sharply increasing shelling in residential areas of the separatist regions over the past weekend as well as in some Russian towns and villages near the border.
Ukraine’s U.N. ambassador demanded that Russia cancel its recognition of the independence of the separatist regions, immediately withdraw its “occupation troops” sent there by Putin and return to negotiations.
Sergiy Kyslytsya condemned Putin’s “illegal and illegitimate” decision to recognize the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.
China, a traditional ally of Russia, sounded a cautious note, calling for restraint and a diplomatic solution to the crisis.
With an estimated 150,000 Russian troops massed on three sides of Ukraine, the U.S. has warned that Moscow has already decided to invade. Still, President Joe Biden and Putin tentatively agreed to a meeting brokered by French President Emmanuel Macron in a last-ditch effort to avoid war.
If Russia moves in, the meeting will be off.
Ukraine and the West have accused Russia of supporting the separatists with arms and troops, but Moscow has denied that, saying that Russians who fought there were volunteers.