Vladimir Putin has declared he recognises the independence of two separatist regions in Ukraine – and there is now the heightened threat that Russian troops could enter the areas.
The Russian president defied Western warnings against such a move over Luhansk and Donetsk, announcing it at the end of a TV address which lasted around an hour.
His decision follows requests by the leaders of the two Russian-backed regions – which broke away from Kyiv’s control in 2014. Separatists and Ukrainian government forces have been involved in clashes there for years and the fighting has intensified recently.
Recognition by the president of their independence paves the way to give them military support and could provide a pretext for Russian troops to cross the border into those areas.
And it could further narrow diplomatic options to avoid war, since it marks a rejection of a seven-year-old ceasefire, brokered by France and Germany under the Minsk agreement, which has been pushed as the framework for any future negotiations on the crisis.
Ukraine wants to join NATO in future – but Russia is vehemently against this and Mr Putin claimed the Western alliance has “completely ignored our concerns”, adding if Ukraine was admitted it would be a “direct threat” to Russian security.
During his lengthy speech, he said the question of Ukraine’s entry to the pact has been decided in advance.
He said he understands that further enlargement of NATO is only a matter of time and the risk of a sudden strike against Russia will sharply grow if it expands.
The Russian president claimed the US and NATO have “unashamedly turned Ukraine into a theatre of war”.
And he believed Ukraine plans to create its own nuclear weapons, adding that if it acquires weapons of mass destruction “the global situation will change drastically, we cannot ignore this”.
He said such nuclear weapons would amount to a preparation for an attack on Russia.
Mr Putin described Ukraine as an integral part of Russia’s history and said eastern Ukraine was ancient Russian lands, adding he was confident the Russian people would support his decision.
There has been fighting in the breakaway regions between pro-Russian separatists and Ukrainian pro-government forces for several years.
More than 14,000 people have been killed since conflict erupted in Donbas (which includes Luhansk and Donetsk) in 2014, shortly after Moscow annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula.
Russia denies being part of the conflict but has backed the separatists with covert military support, financial aid, supplies of COVID-19 vaccines and issuing at least 800,000 Russian passports to residents.
Shelling has intensified since last week along the frontline between the rebels and Ukrainian forces.
Putin’s move could mean Russian troops going into separatist regions
Recognising Donetsk and Luhansk will allow Russia – if it chooses – to send troops into Ukraine, Sky News’ Moscow correspondent Diana Magnay says.
She said: “This essentially paves the way for the Federation Council, the upper house [of the Russian parliament], to authorise the military to go into those separatist republics and then who knows where they go from there.
“Phase one could just be sending in the troops, but then of course you have a situation where Russian troops are facing off against Ukrainian troops directly – up until now it’s essentially been a proxy battle where Russian weapons, and back in 2014-15 some Russian forces, but far less now, were fighting each other in this long eight-year war.
“Then you will have a situation where you have Russians against Ukrainians. You might have skirmishes which would give further justification to go further.
“Now the separatists only occupy parts of those two regions and that would mean Russia pushing towards the borders.”
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On Friday, the rebels started bussing tens of thousands of civilians to Russia, accusing Kyiv of planning an attack – which Ukraine denies as propaganda.
Ukraine and the West consider the rebels to be Russia’s proxies, and have been warning for weeks that Moscow might use them to construct a case for war.
An estimated 150,000 Russian troops have now massed on Ukraine’s borders amid fears of an invasion. The US puts the figure at 190,000.
The Russian president denies he is planning to invade his neighbour, saying his forces are there for military drills.
But Moscow has threatened unspecified “military-technical” action unless it receives sweeping security guarantees, including a promise that Ukraine will never join NATO.
At a televised meeting of his Security Council, which normally meets behind closed doors, Mr Putin restated Russia’s demands, insisting it was not enough for the West to say Ukraine was not ready to join NATO at present.