© Reuters. Ukrainian service members walk near the front line near the city of Novoluhanske in the Donetsk region, Ukraine February 20, 2022. REUTERS / Gleb Garanich
By Andrew Osborn and Dmitry Antonov
MOSCOW (Reuters) -Russian President Vladimir Putin recognized two breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine as independent entities on Monday, defying Western warnings against such a move and upping the ante in a crisis that many fears could unleash a major war.
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 the Russian people would support his decision.
Russian state television showed Putin, joined by Russia-backed separatist leaders, signing a decree recognizing the independence of the two Ukrainian breakaway regions along with agreements on cooperation and friendship.
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 move may well torpedo a last-minute bid for a summit with US President Joe Biden to prevent Russia from invading Ukraine.
The ruble extended its losses as Putin spoke, at one point sliding beyond 80 per dollar.
In his address, Putin delved 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 current crisis.
With his decision, Putin brushed off Western warnings that such a step would be illegal, would kill off peace negotiations and would trigger sanctions against Moscow.
“I deem it necessary to make a decision that should have been made a long time ago – to immediately recognize the independence and sovereignty of the Donetsk People’s Republic and the Luhansk People’s Republic,” Putin said.
He said earlier that “if Ukraine was to join NATO it would serve as a direct threat to Russia’s security.”
Putin has for years worked to restore the growing influence over nations that emerged after the collapse of the Soviet Union, with Ukraine holding an important place in his ambitions.
Russia denies any plan to attack its neighbor, but it has threatened unspecified “military-technical” action unless it receives sweeping security guarantees, including a promise that Ukraine will never join NATO.
Recognition of the rebel-held areas could pave the way for Moscow to send military forces into the two separatist regions – Donetsk and Luhansk – openly and argue that it is intervening as an ally to protect them against Ukraine.
A Russian parliament member and former Donetsk political leader, Alexander Borodai, has said that the separatists would then look to Russia to help them wrest control of parts of the two regions that are still under the sway of Ukrainian forces.
The European Union warned of sanctions from the 27-nation bloc should Moscow annex or recognize the two regions in eastern Ukraine and largely controlled by Russia-backed separatists.
“If there is annexation there will be sanctions, and if there is recognition, I will put the sanctions on the table and the ministers will decide,” EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said after a meeting of the bloc’s foreign ministers.
Earlier this week, US and European officials said the US and allies were not totally in agreement on how to respond in case of stepped-up support for pro-Russian separatists.
It will also narrow diplomatic options to avoid war, as it is an explicit rejection of a seven-year-old ceasefire mediated by France and Germany, touted as the framework for future negotiations on the wider crisis.
Separately, Moscow said Ukrainian military saboteurs had tried to enter Russian territory in armed vehicles leading to five deaths, an accusation dismissed as “fake news” by Kyiv.
Both developments fit a pattern repeatedly predicted by Western governments, who accuse Russia of preparing to fabricate a pretext to invade by blaming Kyiv for attacks and flying on pleas for help from separatist proxies.