Russian President Vladimir Putin has signed the presidential decree recognising the independence of separatist regions in eastern Ukraine – a move that will severely ratchet up tensions with the West amid fears of a Russian invasion.
Putin’s announcement comes after a meeting of the presidential Security Council and paves the way for Russia to openly send troops and weapons to the long-running conflict pitting Ukrainian forces against Moscow-backed rebels.
A 2015 peace deal ended large-scale fighting, but violence has simmered and has seen a spike in recent weeks amid the wider crisis.
The self-declared people’s republics of Donetsk and Luhansk are home to Russia-backed rebels who have been fighting Ukrainian forces since 2014.
Russian troops have been ordered to perform so-called “peacekeeping functions” in both regions.
Ukraine’s president accused Russia of willfully violating its sovereignty.
In a lengthy televised address, Putin described Ukraine as an integral part of Russia’s history and said eastern Ukraine was ancient Russian lands and that he was confident that the Russian people would support his decision.
He said that Ukraine never had a tradition of genuine statehood and complained that post-Soviet Ukraine had wanted everything it could from Moscow without doing anything in return.
Putin announced his decision in phone calls to the leaders of Germany and France, who voiced disappointment, the Kremlin said, and was later shown on state television signing the decree.
Moscow’s move could torpedo a last-minute bid for a summit with US President Joe Biden to prevent Russia from invading Ukraine.
Russia denies any plan to attack its neighbour, but it has threatened unspecified “military-technical” action unless it receives sweeping security guarantees, including a promise that Ukraine will never join NATO.
Putin delivered a long, televised address that ended with his announcement, delving into history as far back as the Ottoman empire and as recent as the tensions over NATO’s eastward expansion – a key irritant for Moscow in the present crisis.
“I deem it necessary to make a decision that should have been made a long time ago – to immediately recognise the independence and sovereignty of the Donetsk People’s Republic and the Luhansk People’s Republic,” Putin said.
The announcement comes amid soaring tensions over the situation in Ukraine, where Russia has massed tens of thousands of troops near the border.
Satellite images also appeared to show new deployments of Russian equipment and troops in farms and forests as near as 15km (9.3 miles) to the Ukrainian border.
Western powers fear Putin’s recognition of the rebel-held areas paves the way for Russian troops to officially enter Ukraine’s east.
In recent years, Russian passports have been given out to large numbers of people in Donetsk and Luhansk, and Western allies fear Russia could now move military units in under the guise of protecting its citizens.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz told Putin during a phone call that any move to recognise the independence of the breakaway regions in Donbas would amount to a “one-sided breach” of the Minsk agreements designed to end a long-running separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine, Scholz’s office said in a statement.
Scholz also urged Putin to pull Russian troops from Ukraine’s border and deescalate the situation in eastern Ukraine. His office said he would consult with Ukrainian and French leaders about the situation.
France and Germany are mediators in the conflict between Kyiv and Russia-backed separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine.
The West has repeatedly warned Russia not to recognise the separatist regions of Donetsk and Luhansk.
French President Emmanuel Macron on Monday called an emergency national security meeting to address recent developments linked to the crisis in Ukraine, the Elysee Palace said.
The European Union’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said the bloc will move to impose sanctions on Russia if Putin recognises Ukraine’s separatist territories as independent.
“We call upon President Putin to respect international law and the Minsk agreements and expect him not to recognise the independence of Lugansk and Donetsk oblasts,” Borrell said after a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Brussels.
“We are ready to react with a strong, united front in case he should decide to do so.”
Russia’s rouble, already under pressure from a vast Russian military buildup near Ukraine, tumbled to new weeks-long lows as Putin spoke.