Vladimir Putin is to recognise the independence of eastern Ukraine’s two Moscow-backed separatist regions Luhansk and Donetsk — a potentially explosive move that threatens to push the simmering crisis closer to all-out war.
The Russian president told France’s President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz he planned to sign a decree recognising the two breakaway regions as independent entities shortly, the Kremlin said.
Such a move is likely to torpedo a last-minute bid for a summit to prevent Russia from invading Ukraine as it would tear up the existing Minsk peace treaty and potentially give Russia a pretext to send troops across the border.
Boris Johnson said the move “plainly in breach of international law” and “a flagrant violation of the sovereignty and integrity of Ukraine,” adding: “I think it’s a very ill omen and a very dark sign.”
In a televised address to Russians on Monday night, Mr Putin called eastern Ukraine “ancient Russian lands”. He also claimed that Ukraine never had a “genuine tradition” of statehood and was “managed by foreign powers”.
Earlier, during a dramatic and theatrical televised meeting of his Security Council, the all-powerful Russian president warned he would soon make a decision on independence for Luhansk and Donetsk, which have been at war with Kiev since 2014.
In extraordinary scenes, he paraded his senior advisors who took it in turns to speak on the issue and then declare they were in favour of independence.
Putin cross-examined ministers and spy chiefs on the question of whether to recognise the two breakaway Donbass regions. One after another, they walked to a white lectern in a column-lined hall to paint a relentlessly grim picture of the situation in Donbass.
At one point, Mr Putin intervened to emphasise he had not discussed in advance what the officials were going to tell him, as if to dispel the impression that the proceedings had been choreographed.
He chastised foreign intelligence chief Sergei Naryshkin when the unfortunate official said only he “will support” recognition of the Donbass regions.
“Will support, or do support? Tell me straight, Sergei Yevgenievich,” Putin said.
When a faltering Mr Naryshkin then said he supported the breakaway regions becoming part of Russia, Putin upbraided him again: “We’re not talking about that… We’re talking about whether to recognise their independence or not.”
Naryshkin: “Yes, I support the proposal to recognise their independence.”
Putin: “Ok, please sit down, thank you.”
At the end of the televised meeting, Mr Putin said: “I have heard your opinion – a decision will be made today.”
The Kremlin had signalled its reluctance to recognise independence as it would damage the Minsk peace process aimed at ending the eight-year conflict between Ukrainian government forces and separatists that has cost 15,000 lives.
The rebel leaders in the Donbas earlier on Monday released statements urging Mr Putin to recognise them as independent states and sign friendship treaties envisaging military aid to protect them from what they described as an ongoing Ukrainian military offensive.
Russia’s lower house of parliament last week voted in favour of sending a resolution to Mr Putin to ask him to recognise the breakaway regions as independent.
Western powers fear that Russia will use a recent spike in violence in the two self-proclaimed republics of Donetsk and Luhansk as justification for an invasion of its neighbour – by arguing that it would be protecting residents there from Ukraine.
Shelling has intensified since last week along a long-simmering frontline between the pro-Russia rebels and Ukrainian forces. On Friday, the separatists started evacuating tens of thousands of civilians to Russia, accusing Kiev of planning an attack, which Ukraine denies as propaganda.
On the ground on Monday, Ukraine rejected as “fake news”, a Moscow claim that it had killed five “saboteurs” attempting to cross into Russia.
Ukraine’s foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba took to Twitter to deny that the country had attacked Donetsk or Luhansk or had any plans to do so. “Russia, stop your fake-producing factory now,” he tweeted.
Ukrainian government troops in trenches in the country’s east said on Monday heavy weapons fire from Russian-backed separatists had intensified to provoke all-out conflict.
With warnings of imminent war growing louder and more frequent, French president Emmanuel Macron scrambled to broker a meeting between Joe Biden and Mr Putin.
Mr Macron’s office said both leaders had “accepted the principle of such a summit” and a date would be arranged at a meeting of their foreign ministers this week, though that could now be scuppered.
Meanwhile, western officials said they believed Putin was now poised to invade as they said the military build-up continued.