(The Hill) – Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday recognized as independent two breakaway territories in eastern Ukraine.
The move is likely to set up a confrontation with Kyiv and its Western allies, which are poised to push back on potential large-scale Russian military aggression.
Putin made the announcement at the end of a winding speech that set out his vision of a Ukraine that has historically been part of Russia and is now under the control of the West. He also used the occasion to fire off a litany of accusations against Ukraine, the U.S. and Western allies, painting Russia as a protector of its culture and its people against an encroaching threat.
The Kremlin earlier in the day said in a statement Putin intends to sign a decree recognizing the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic, which are in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region, as independent, according to The New York Times. The Kremlin further said the Russian president received pushback from the leaders in France and Germany over the decision during a phone call.
“The president of France and the Federal Chancellor of Germany expressed their disappointment with this development. At the same time, they indicated their readiness to continue contacts,” the Kremlin said in a statement.
The move follows Putin presiding over a public and highly choreographed meeting of the Russian National Security Council where members expressed near unanimity for the Kremlin to recognize the territories as independent.
The Russian president said he had convened the meeting in response to requests from the self-declared leaders of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions requesting Moscow recognize their independence, and a resolution passed in the Russian State Duma supporting Moscow conferring independence.
The Biden administration had earlier warned against Putin making such a move, with Secretary of State Antony Blinken saying the U.S. would impose a “swift and firm response” if the Kremlin recognized independence and that it would be viewed as a rejection of the Minsk agreements, a diplomatic framework established in 2015 aimed at ending the fighting between Ukrainian forces and Russian-backed separatists in the Donbas, where an estimated 15,000 people have been killed.
A White House official said Monday that President Biden was meeting with his national security team to discuss the developments related to Russia and Ukraine, with reports of Blinken, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley at the White House.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy wrote on Twitter that he had spoken with French President Emanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Sholz following Putin’s security council meeting, and convened a meeting of the Ukrainian National Security and Defense Council.
Fighting has escalated in the Donbas in recent days, with U.S., Ukrainian and other European officials placing blame on Russian-backed separatists for provoking violence, including the shelling of a kindergarten in the region, and praising Ukrainian forces for restraint.
The increase in fighting is coupled with warnings from the U.S. and its allies and partners that Russia seeks to manufacture a “false-flag” operation to create a pretext for Russia to invade Ukraine and would launch a large-scale invasion with nearly 200,000 troops that includes removing the Ukrainian government in Kyiv.
Estonia’s Prime Minister Kaja Kallas tweeted earlier on Monday that recognizing the breakaway regions “would be a serious escalation by the Kremlin.”
“It would be a clear and grave violation of international law and the territorial integrity of Ukraine. Donetsk and Luhansk are and will be part of Ukraine,” she wrote on Twitter. “This decision would also end the Minsk agreements. By saying ‘no’ to a political solution based on the Minsk agreements, the Kremlin shuts the door on diplomacy and creates an excuse for war.”
It’s unclear what action the U.S. and its partners will take in response to Putin’s actions. The West has warned the Kremlin that a military incursion would be met with a massive economic sanctions package.
Evelyn Farkas, who served as deputy assistant secretary of Defense for Russia, Ukraine, and Eurasia during the Obama administration, said recognition of the Donbas as independent may trigger some sanctions but that more devastating consequences would be reserved to be used against military action.
“I think the Biden people have been pretty clear that it is military action they are looking for to include cyber and little green men,” Farkas said, but added that recognition could be a prelude to using armed force.
“The reality is, if he goes ahead and recognizes them, he’s likely to send more forces in and that’s likely to trigger sanctions,” she said, likening it to Russia sending troops into Georgie in 2008 after recognizing separtist territories in the north-eastern and central part of that country as independent.
Michael McFaul, who served as U.S. ambassador to Russia during the Obama administration, wrote on Twitter that the West should impose sanctions against Moscow if Putin recognizes Luhansk and Donetsk, warning that such recognition is likely an opening salvo against Ukraine.
“After Putin recognizes Donetsk and Luhansk, Zelensky will have to respond, right? And if he does, then Putin can justify invading as a reaction to Ukrainian ‘aggression’ and ‘protection’ of their new allies,” he tweeted.
Morgan Chalfant contributed to this report.