Russian President Vladimir Putin says he will decide whether or not to recognize the independence of two breakaway parts of eastern Ukraine's Donbas region today. Doing so would be a huge new development in the current crisis surrounding Ukraine and one that The War Zone, among others, has long seen as a very possible prelude to a larger conflict between the two countries.
You can find details about Putin's latest moves regarding the formal recognition of two breakaway regions of Ukraine as independent countries in the updates at the bottom of this story.
Putin's announcement regarding recognition of the self-styled Donetsk People's Republic and Luhansk People's Republic, also referred to as the DNR and LNR respectively, came at the end of a televised meeting with his Security Council. This follows a recent spike in fighting along the so-called Line of Control that separates the two sides in the Donbas, as well as a stream of at-best unconfirmed claims of Ukrainian aggression in the region and on Russian soil.
"A decision will be taken today," Putin said right before the feed from the meeting cut off. This came after a train of ministers and other senior government officials had been called upon to make statements outlining the Kremlin's justifications for recognizing the DNR and LNR. Earlier in the day, the leaders of the pro-Russian separatists currently in control of those areas both issued new pleas to Russia for recognition, as well as for military support.
Putin, as well as others at the meeting, repeatedly accused Ukraine of failing to meet its obligations under the Minsk Protocols. This is a multi-national framework intended to provide a path toward resolving the conflict in Donbas, which first erupted in 2014 following Russia's seizure of the Crimea region. Authorities in Moscow and Kyiv have long accused each other of ignoring or outright violating the terms of the Minsk deals, which include a much-abused ceasefire agreement.
"Neither the west, nor Ukraine need Donbas," Kremlin Deputy Chief of Staff Dmitry Kozak, Russia's point person on the Minsk agreements, said at today's meeting. "They want to put the brakes on the situation."
"These aren't just Russian speakers, these are citizens of the Russian Federation," Deputy Chairman of the Security Council Dmitry Medvedev said, highlighting the Kremlin's past decisions to issue passports to many residents of the DNR and LNR. "If things continue this way, the only way out is to recognize the sovereignty of these territories."
In the past week or so there has been a significant surge in exchanges of artillery fire across the so-called Line of Control that separates the two sides in the Donbas. There has also been a steady stream of allegations from separatist officials and Russian authorities that Ukraine or its proxies have been carrying out or attempting to carry out a host of provocations, including acts of sabotage and shelling of targets inside undisputed Russian territory. Just today, among other things, the Russian military claimed that it had destroyed two Ukrainian armored vehicles that crossed the border into Russia after purportedly carrying out an attack in Donetsk. Russian officials, such as Ministry of Defense Sergei Shoigu and Federal Security Service head Alexander Bortnikov, brought up many of these purported incidents at the meeting with Putin today.
However, Russian officials have yet to provide any hard evidence to substantiate any of these claims. The Ukrainian government, as well as U.S. officials and others, have said that these allegations are categorically false and are part of the Kremlin's efforts to build up pretexts for a larger invasion of Ukraine.
At the same time, experts and observers have raised serious questions about the veracity of many of the more serious purported incidents, such as today's purported Ukrainian armored incursion. Analysis of much of the purported evidence that the separatists and Russian authorities strongly indicate that many of these alleged provocations have been entirely staged. For instance, DNR officials claimed last week that the republic's top military official was the target of bomb on a bomb planted on his personal vehicle. However, pictures and video footage of the aftermath of that apparent attack showed that the destroyed vehicle was a Cold War-era UAZ-469 jeep, rather than a more modern UAZ Patriot SUV that he is known to drive, and that the license plates from the latter truck had been put on the former one.
In addition, Putin and others at today's meeting reiterated the Russian government's position that the crisis surrounding Ukraine is linked to larger issues, including that country's potential accession to NATO. The Kremlin has issued a large number of demands for what it wants the alliance, and the United States in particular, to do in order to de-escalate the situation. This includes a formal pledge to prevent Ukraine from joining the alliance, the withdrawal of significant forces from areas along its periphery with Russia, and other "red line" issues that American and NATO officials have repeatedly pushed back on.
"This isn't a concession," Putin said referring to recent comments from German Chancellor Olaf Scholz that Ukraine is unlikely to even be in a place to potentially join NATO any time soon. "This is part of your plan!"
“We need negotiations, but only with the U.S. Everyone else will do what they tell them.” Nikolai Patrushev, Secretary of the Security Council of Russia, said. “They are hiding their true goal – to destroy the Russian Federation.”
Patrushev added that maybe Putin should issue an ultimatum to the U.S. government to find a resolution to the crisis in the next two to three days with a threat to recognize the DNR and LNR if Russia's demands are not met.
Recognition of the DNR and LNR would give Russia, which currently has between 150,000 and 200,000 military personnel arrayed around Ukraine, a justification to overtly move at least some of those forces into the Donbas. This would all but mean the end of the Minsk Protocols, and the ceasefire in place now, which Russian officials and others had previously said was the main impendent to recognizing these breakaway republics.
This all, in turn, could put Russian troops in the line of fire, and then any casualties among them would provide a pretext for a major operation deeper into Ukraine. In addition, the DNR and LNK currently claim areas of Donetsk and Luhansk that are still under Ukrainian control, which might present another point of contention that could lead to a larger conflict.
These scenarios all bear some very general similarities to Russia's war against Georgia in 2008, which also involved fighting over two breakaway regions. Deputy Chairman of the Security Council Medvedev, who was President of Russia at that time, brought up that conflict, and its relatively positive outcome for the Kremlin, at today's meeting.
The forces that Russia has positioned around Ukraine make clear that any future invasion will be much larger than Russia's incursion into Georgia more than a decade ago. U.S. officials, on and off the record, have been warning just in the past day or so that the Kremlin's plans for such an operation include more than just a massive conventional assault, including missile and artillery barrages against populated centers. There is reportedly intelligence that shows Russia's troops could be poised to execute a larger plan to eliminate, either functionally or literally, entire opposition groups.
President Biden and others have already said that they believe the Kremlin could launch this major military intervention within days. A recent report indicates that this belief is based, at least in part, on an intercepted order to Russian units to get ready to cross the border. U.S. and NATO manned and unmanned intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance aircraft that have been persistently monitoring the situation for weeks now, as well as satellite imagery and other sources and methods, are clearly providing additional corroborating information, as well.
It's also important to note that Putin's decision to hold this meeting on national television seems almost certain to have been intended, in part, to show that Russian authorities are unified in their positions regarding Ukraine. In fact, at one point, Russia's President forcefully pushed Sergei Naryshkin, head of the country's Foreign Intelligence Service, to say he unequivocally would support recognition of DNR and LNR independence. As he was pressed, a visibly flustered Naryshkin also declared that he would support outright Russian annexation of those areas.
U.S. and Ukrainian officials, along with others, have continued to call for diplomacy to de-escalate the crisis. The White House said yesterday that President Biden had agreed "in principle" to hold another summit with Putin, something that French President Emmanuel Macron had recently proposed to his Russian counterpart.
All told, whatever Putin decides to do will have major ramifications for how this crisis will evolve in the coming days, if not hours.
Update 1:35 PM EST:
The Kremlin says that Putin has now informed German Chancellor Scholz and French President Macron that he has decided to formally recognize the independence of the DNR and the LNR. Germany and France have been mediating the Minsk Protocols framework since 2015.
"The President of France and Chancellor of Germany expressed disappointment with this development," according to an official readout of the call. "They also expressed a willingness to continue contacts."
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has himself been in contact with the German and French leaders regarding the situation and has convened a meeting of his own National Security and Defense Council. The Ukrainian government announced earlier in the day that it was asking the United Nations Security Council to hold an emergency meeting in response to the evolving crisis, as well.
Update 3:15 PM EST:
Putin has now formally signed decrees recognizing the independence of the DNR and the LNR, as well as "friendship and mutual aid" agreements with both of them. He has also called on the Duma to ratify all of this as soon as possible.
The signing ceremony followed a lengthy speech from Putin in which he laid out a litany of grievances against Ukraine, NATO, and elements of the broader international community. His remarks were full of inflammatory comments and unsubstantiated allegations, including questioning Ukraine's legitimacy as an independent country, accusing the government in Kyiv of planning to develop nuclear weapons, and claiming the Ukrainian military may be taking direction straight from NATO officials.
Putin did not announce any specific actions he now plans to take against Ukraine or any other country. However, he did reiterate Russia's allegations that Ukraine is preparing to launch its own offensive into Donbas and demanded that Kyiv agree to an immediate ceasefire or face responsibility for the subsequent "bloodbath." There remains no evidence to substantiate the claims that Ukrainian forces are preparing for a launch-scale attack on separatist-controlled areas.
It is worth noting that tomorrow, February 22, is the anniversary of the date on which popular protests in Ukraine drove out pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych and toppled his regime. This was one of the precipitating incidents that led to Russia's seizure of Crimea. Firebrand Russian politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky had warned last December that the Russian government would take a new, more aggressive direction in regards to its policies toward Ukraine on that date. Zhirinovsky did not elaborate on what this new direction might be or provide any further evidence that it was coming, but it does highlight the potential symbolism of Putin taking action now.
Putin's speech, though it reiterated many points he has made in the past about Ukraine's history as simply a part of Russia and other international grievances, has also raised concerns about whether he may be signaling a broader shift in foreign policy. For instance, the logic by which he claims that Ukraine is not a 'real' country could be equally applied to Finland, a non-NATO country, as well as NATO members Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, among others.
From what Putin has had to say already, his decision to recognize the DNR and LNR tonight would seem to be just the first part of a larger plan that could have ramifications well beyond Ukraine.
Update 4:30 PM EST:
The White House has announced plans to put new sanctions into place that will prohibit U.S. nationals from engaging in any business dealings with entities in the DNR and LNR. These prohibitions are separate from a planned slate of sanctions that the U.S. government had said it will put into place if Russia invades Ukraine.
"We have anticipated a move like this from Russia and are ready to respond immediately," White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said in a statement. "President Biden will soon issue an Executive Order that will prohibit new investment, trade, and financing by U.S. persons to, from, or in the so-called DNR and LNR regions of Ukraine. "
"To be clear: these measures are separate from and would be in addition to the swift and severe economic measures we have been preparing in coordination with Allies and partners should Russia further invade Ukraine," she added. "We are continuing to closely consult with Allies and partners, including Ukraine, on next steps and on Russia’s ongoing escalation along the border with Ukraine."
The European Union has also said that it will move to sanction individuals associated with Russia's decrees regarding the DNR and LNR. Again, this is separate from the economic bloc's broader proposed sanctions that could come in response to the Kremlin launch a new major military intervention into Ukraine.
NATO had separately condemned Russia's decision to recognize the DNR and LNR. "This further undermines Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, erodes efforts towards a resolution of the conflict, and violates the Minsk Agreements, to which Russia is a party," Jens Stoltenberg, the alliance's Secretary-General, said in a statement.
"Moscow continues to fuel the conflict in eastern Ukraine by providing financial and military support to the separatists. It is also trying to stage a pretext to invade Ukraine once again," he continued. "NATO supports the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine within its internationally recognized borders. Allies urge Russia, in the strongest possible terms, to choose the path of diplomacy, and to immediately reverse its massive military build-up in and around Ukraine, and withdraw its forces from Ukraine in accordance with its international obligations and commitments."
We have ended updates for this story. You can find our continuing coverage of this new and still-developing phase of this crisis here.
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