Russian President Vladimir Putin has recognized the independence of two separatist regions in southeastern Ukraine and dispatched Russian troops into the breakaway areas, escalating the crisis between Moscow and Kyiv and increasing the prospects of a full-scale invasion.
Mr. Putin made the announcement and signed the recognition documents at the end of a 40-minute televised address on Monday, most of which was delivered in anger, lamenting the end of the Soviet Union and the loss of territories such as Ukraine that once were part of the Russian empire.
He repeatedly spoke of Ukraine’s independence as a historical accident and said the country had become a U.S. “colony led by a puppet regime” since a 2014 pro-Western revolution, an uprising Mr. Putin referred to as a coup d’état. Monday was the eighth anniversary of the day Moscow-backed president Viktor Yanukovych was forced to flee into exile in Russia.
Hours after Mr. Putin spoke, videos posted to social media showed long columns of what appeared to be Russian troop trucks and armoured personnel carriers crossing the Ukrainian border into the separatist-controlled areas.
Recognition of the Donetsk and Lugansk “people’s republics” as independent entities immediately raised the stakes along a front line in the Donbas region that has already seen a dramatic increase in artillery fire – nearly all of it emanating from the separatist-controlled areas – since Thursday.
Mr. Putin’s bitter words, which were backed by the presence of between 170,000 and 190,000 Russian troops massed around Ukraine’s borders, also hinted at an intent to dismantle a state that recently celebrated the 30th anniversary of its independence from Moscow.
Monday’s moves brought an end to the peace process known as the Minsk Protocols, which had kept the front lines stable in the Donbas even as the guns never truly fell silent. The two regions have been under the control of Moscow-backed militias for the past eight years, fuelling a conflict that has taken more than 14,000 lives over that time.
Mr. Putin, who repeated his claim about Ukraine carrying out “genocide” against the region’s predominantly Russian-speaking population – a claim rejected by human-rights monitors – also signed memorandums of “friendship, co-operation and mutual aid” with the separatist leaders. Though the scope of the agreements wasn’t immediately clear, they reportedly allowed Russia to build military bases in the territories.
He warned the Ukrainian government to cease all attacks on the separatist regions – attacks the Ukrainian military says it is not carrying out.
“Those who seized power and keep power in Kyiv, we demand they stop the hostilities immediately. Otherwise, all the responsibility for the possible continuation of the bloodbath will be on the conscience of the regime that is ruling in Kyiv,” Mr. Putin said.
Colonel Andriy Demchenko, spokesman for the State Border Guard Service of Ukraine, called claims of recent Ukrainian attacks on Donetsk and Lugansk – as well as Russian media reports that two Ukrainian armoured personnel carriers had entered Russia on Monday and been destroyed – “Russian disinformation.”
He said Ukrainian artillery was too far from the front line, as per the terms of the Minsk agreements, to be capable of carrying out the attacks attributed to it. “They want to put responsibility for this escalation on Ukraine, and to provoke Ukraine into some responses,” he said in an interview in Kyiv.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky summoned an emergency meeting of his National Security and Defence Council on Monday. He also held a 35-minute phone call with U.S. President Joe Biden.
Ukraine also requested an emergency session of the United Nations Security Council to debate what Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba called “Russia’s illegal actions.”
The White House immediately announced sanctions on the two breakaway regions. Spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Mr. Biden would sign an executive order that would bar Americans and anyone else living in the U.S. from engaging in new trade, investment or financing with the regions. The order would also allow the U.S. government to impose personal sanctions on anyone “determined to operate in those areas of Ukraine.”
“We have anticipated a move like this from Russia and are ready to respond immediately,” Ms. Psaki said in a statement, adding that Mr. Biden also planned to announce other measures “related to today’s blatant violation of Russia’s international commitments.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Canada “will respond strongly and firmly with our allies in case of any territorial violation of Ukraine.” But he did not directly answer a question about whether the Kremlin’s recognition of the two regions would be enough to trigger fresh sanctions from Ottawa against Mr. Putin and his inner circle.
“We will fully stand for the entire territorial integrity of Ukraine and do not recognize any attempt to independently recognize or autonomize the separatist-occupied regions of eastern Ukraine,” Mr. Trudeau told reporters in Ottawa.
“As our allies, as the Americans, as Canada, as European allies have been clear, any violation of Ukraine’s current territorial integrity will be seen as a violation by Russia of some founding principles of the UN and the rule of law as we practise it around the world right now.”
Mr. Putin shrugged off the possibility of new sanctions. Russia has faced a range of economic restrictions since 2014, when it seized and annexed the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine and began its support of the Donbas militias.
“They are threatening us again with sanctions, which, by the way, I think they will introduce anyway as Russia’s sovereignty strengthens and the power of our armed forces grows,” Mr. Putin said in his speech. “And a pretext for another sanctions attack will always be found or fabricated.”
Russia’s stock markets took a beating nonetheless, with the country’s main RTS index tumbling 12.5 per cent even though trading ended before Mr. Putin started speaking. The national currency, the ruble, also lost 2 per cent of its value on the day.
Some of the Russian leader’s most alarming words questioned the very existence of Ukraine as a state, and of Ukrainians as a people separate from Russians. He said Ukraine was a creation of the Soviet Union and its founder Vladimir Lenin. “Modern Ukraine was entirely created by Russia, more precisely, Bolshevik, Communist Russia,” he said.
Lenin and the USSR are now widely reviled in modern Ukraine, which since 2014 has purged nearly all symbols of the Communist era. “Do you want de-communisation? Well, that suits us just fine,” Mr. Putin said, anger apparent in his voice. “But it is unnecessary, as they say, to stop halfway. We are ready to show you what real de-communisation means for Ukraine.”
Mr. Putin’s speech came after an extraordinary session of his country’s Security Council that saw speaker after speaker provide Mr. Putin with reasons for recognizing the separatist regions. The remarkable meeting, which was televised, saw Mr. Putin ask each of 12 senior officials whether they supported the proposal to recognize Donetsk and Lugansk as independent. All said they supported the idea, some enthusiastically, others with evident concern on their faces.
Mr. Putin again made it clear that Russia would not tolerate Ukraine being allowed to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, a 30-country military alliance that has repeatedly expanded eastward since the end of the Cold War. The U.S. and NATO have said Moscow cannot have a veto over who joins the bloc.
On Monday, Mr. Putin said Russia “has every right to take retaliatory measures to ensure its own security. That is exactly what we will do.”
In addition to the Russian troops massed along Ukraine’s eastern border, there are also tens of thousands stationed to the south in Crimea, as well as in Belarus, to the north of Ukraine. Joint Russian-Belarusian military drills, which were scheduled to end on Sunday, are now continuing indefinitely, the two countries announced.
The positioning of the troops in Crimea and Belarus raises the spectre of a three-pronged Russian invasion of Ukraine, with units in Belarus only 150 kilometres from the capital city of Kyiv. Mr. Biden has said Mr. Putin’s real aim is to capture the Ukrainian capital.
Col. Demchenko said joint Russian-Belarusian military exercises had come close enough to Ukraine’s northern border in recent days that Ukrainian border guards could see them without the aid of binoculars.
With reports from Adrian Morrow in Washington and Ian Bailey in Ottawa
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