Vladimir Putin signed a decree on Monday recognising parts of eastern Ukraine as independent entities, sending Russian forces there to “maintain peace”. The move threatens to push the crisis closer to all-out war.
The Russian president made the gesture live on television after an emotional address in which he referred to eastern Ukraine as “ancient Russian lands” and said it was “managed by foreign powers”. He called Ukraine a US colony with a puppet regime.
In a chilling speech, he said “the responsibility for the possible continuation of the bloodbath will be on the conscience of the regime that is ruling in Kiev”.
A vaguely worded decree signed by Mr Putin did not say if troops were on the move.
The recognition of Luhansk and Donetsk is likely to torpedo a last-minute bid for a summit to prevent Russia from invading Ukraine as it rips apart the existing Minsk peace treaty and gives Russia a pretext to send troops across the border.
Early on Tuesday in an address to the nation Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine’s president, said the actions of the Russian federation were a violation of the integrity and sovereignty of the territory Ukraine.
He said that Ukraine wants peace and supports a political and diplomatic settlement. "We are not afraid", he declared, adding that his country is waiting for clear and effective steps of support from its international partners.
Boris Johnson said the move is “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.”
The UK government will announce fresh sanctions against Russia on Tuesday in response to it’s decision to recognise separatist regions.
Liz Truss, the foreign secretary, said she would be setting out the measures “in response to their breach of international law”. She said Mr Putin’s move would not go “unpunished”.
The British sanctions will not be the full package of sanctions prepared in recent weeks, The Independent understands, with further retaliatory economic measures expected if Russia invades Ukraine.
The White House said president Joe Biden will order new sanctions banning “investment, trade, and financing” between US individuals and the two breakaway regions.
Mr Biden reaffirmed support for Ukraine’s sovereignty in a call on Monday with Mr Zelenskiy and also spoke to Emmanuel Macron, the French president, and German chancellor Olaf Scholz.
The EU’s top officials also said the bloc will impose sanctions against those involved in Russia’s recognition of two separatist regions of eastern Ukraine.
EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen said the bloc would “react with unity, firmness and with determination in solidarity with Ukraine”.
Earlier, during a dramatic and theatrical televised meeting of his security council, the 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 senior advisors taking turns to speak on the issue before declaring they were in favour of independence.
Putin cross-examined ministers and spy chiefs on the question of whether to recognise the two breakaway Donbas 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 that he “will support” the recognition of the Donbas regions.
“Will support or do support? Tell me straight, Sergei Yevgenievich,” Mr Putin said.
When a faltering Mr Naryshkin then said he supported the breakaway regions becoming part of Russia, Mr Putin upbraided him again: “We’re not talking about that... We’re talking about whether to recognise their independence or not.”
Mr Naryshkin: “Yes, I support the proposal to recognise their independence.” Mr 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 to send a resolution to Mr Putin to ask him to recognise the regions as independent.
Western powers fear 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 it would be protecting their residents from Ukraine.
Shelling has intensified since last week along a long-simmering frontline between 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. Ukraine says this is 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 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, Mr Macron scrambled to broker a meeting between Mr 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 Mr Putin was now poised to invade as they said the military build-up continued.