President Vladimir Putin said Russia has recognised the territorial claims of the self-declared separatist republics in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, in a move that could significantly increase the risk of a war between the two countries.
The move came in the face of a wave of new sanctions announced by the United States, United Kingdom and European Union on Tuesday, after Putin recognised the self-declared Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics (DPR and LPR, respectively).
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The sanctions included an announcement that Germany was halting certification of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia.
Putin’s plans remained unclear, but Western officials have been warning for weeks that he has been preparing for an all-out invasion of Ukraine, a move that would prompt a catastrophic war in Europe.
NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg said the alliance had “every indication” that Moscow “continues to plan for a full-scale attack on Ukraine”.
Speaking to reporters on Tuesday, Putin said Moscow had recognised the independence of Ukraine’s separatist regions within their administrative borders, including territory controlled by Kyiv.
“Well, we recognised them. And this means that we recognised all their fundamental documents, including the constitution,” Putin told reporters. “And the constitution spells out the borders within the Donetsk and Luhansk regions at the time when they were part of Ukraine.”
The breakaway republics claim territories far greater than the areas they currently control, including towns and cities beyond the front lines of the conflict that are controlled by the Ukrainian government.
Al Jazeera’s Charles Stratford, reporting from Mariupol in eastern Ukraine, said Putin’s recognition of the pro-Russian separatists’ territorial claim to the wider Donbas region is based on their 2014 constitution.
“Any kind of recognition of that area would potentially include cities like Mariupol, and big cities and towns like Slovyansk, Kramatorsk. It is a huge expansive area that is much larger than the area that is currently controlled by the Russian-backed separatist forces,” he said.
Green light to deploy forces
Putin made the announcement after Russia’s upper house, the Federation Council, unanimously voted to allow Putin to deploy “peacekeepers” to the breakaway regions and potentially into other parts of Ukraine.
The decision would take immediate effect, senior legislator Andrei Klishas told the chamber.
“By approving the use of the armed forces abroad, we assume they will be peacekeeping forces – forces designed to maintain peace and stability in the [self-proclaimed east Ukrainian] republics,” Valentina Matviyenko, the upper house’s speaker, said before the vote.
As legislators met to discuss the idea, the Kremlin announced Putin had ratified friendship treaties with two Moscow-backed Ukrainian breakaway republics.
Russia has said that step allows it to build military bases there, deploy troops, agree upon a joint defence posture and tighten economic integration.
Kyiv calls for more weapons
Putin also said the Minsk peace agreements on Ukraine’s conflict no longer existed and said the deployment of Russian troops would “depend on the specific situation … on the ground”.
He appeared to offer Ukraine a way out by giving up on its hopes to join the US-led NATO military alliance. “The best solution … would be if the current Kyiv authorities themselves refused to join NATO and maintained neutrality,” Putin said.
He also urged Kyiv to recognise Russia’s sovereignty over Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula that Moscow annexed from Ukraine in 2014.
The West has decried the annexation of Crimea as a violation of international law and has previously flatly rejected permanently barring Ukraine from NATO.
Kyiv showed no sign of backing down to Moscow, with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba in Washington calling on the EU to promise his country membership and for the West to supply it with more weapons.
“Our best guarantees will be our diplomacy and arms. We will mobilise the whole world to get everything we need to strengthen our defences,” Kuleba said.
Kyiv recalled its top diplomat from Moscow as President Volodymyr Zelenskyy warned Putin’s recognition of the breakaway regions heralded “further military aggression” against Ukraine.