Russian President Vladimir Putin announced his decision to recognize an independence bid by Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine in a move that was discouraged by the United Nations and swiftly condemned by Western leaders fearful of major conflict in the region.
The White House said U.S. President Joe Biden will order new sanctions against the separatist leadership in eastern Ukraine.
Mr. Putin listed a litany of alleged grievances against the leadership in Kyiv as well as NATO and the West in a televised speech that concluded with the signing of documents that appeared to give Kremlin backing to the separatists’ ambitions.
“I consider it necessary to take a long overdue decision: to immediately recognize the independence and sovereignty of the Donetsk People’s Republic and the Luhansk People’s Republic,” Mr. Putin said in a reference to separatist-held parts of Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk regions. “I ask the Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation to support this decision and then ratify the treaty of friendship and mutual assistance with both republics.”
The full extent of Mr. Putin’s decree is unclear, as the separatists claim all of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions but control only around half of the two eastern Ukrainian regions.
Kyiv and Western leaders have warned for weeks that a Russian military attack on Ukraine could be imminent, with more than 150,000 Russian troops massed near the border with its smaller post-Soviet neighbor.
As Mr. Putin spoke, international news agencies quoted Ukrainian government troops in frontline trenches in eastern Ukraine as saying firing from heavy weapons in the hands of the separatists had intensified.
European and U.S. leaders quickly condemned the recognition and vowed more sanctions targeting Russia or the separatist-held areas of eastern Ukraine.
The Russian ruble also plummeted, slipping past 80 against the dollar, while stocks plunged to their lowest in over a year led by a fall in Russian assets.
Kyiv responded to Mr. Putin’s announcement by saying “the entire world” is following Russia’s actions on the recognition of the self-styled groups and “everyone realizes the consequences.”
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy spoke to Mr. Biden about the development and planned to talk to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Mr. Zelenskyy also said he was convening a meeting of the National Security and Defense Council.
Mr. Putin made widespread and familiar allegations throughout his speech – without providing evidence – including that Kyiv was seeking to obtain nuclear weapons, that “horror and genocide” was being perpetrated against residents of eastern Ukraine, and that the Russian language and Orthodox Church were being targeted there.
He also said NATO had “completely ignored” Moscow’s security demands, which have included calls for a legally binding pledge that Ukraine won’t be allowed to join the alliance and the removal of NATO weapons and equipment from Central and Eastern European countries.
Mr. Putin concluded with an ominous warning for Kyiv, which he described as a “puppet regime” run by foreign powers.
“And from those who have seized and are holding power in Ukraine, we demand an immediate cessation of hostilities,” he said, turning Ukrainian reports of aggression by Russia and its proxy forces on their head. “Otherwise, the entire responsibility for the possible continuation of the bloodshed will be entirely on the conscience of the regime ruling on the territory of Ukraine.”
Western powers have repeatedly warned of serious consequences if Russia attacks Ukraine.
After Mr. Putin’s recognition announcement, White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Mr. Biden would sign an executive order to “prohibit new investment, trade and financing by U.S. persons to, from,or in the so-called DNR and LNR regions of Ukraine,” in a reference to the separatist areas.
She said the order will “provide authority to impose sanctions on any person determined to operate in those areas of Ukraine.”
Ms. Psaki stressed that wider sanctions were prepared “should Russia further invade Ukraine.”
Mr. Biden also had a phone call with French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, the White House said.
EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Council President Charles Michel issued a joint statement saying the recognition is “a blatant violation of international law.” They said the bloc “will react with sanctions” and “reiterates its unwavering support to Ukraine’s independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity within its internationally recognized borders.”
As Mr. Putin was speaking, Mr. Johnson repeated that a “robust package of sanctions” could await Russia. He called Mr. Putin’s move “a flagrant violation of the sovereignty and integrity of … Ukraine.”
Latvian Foreign Affairs Minister Edgars Rinkevics said the EU must immediately impose sanctions.
Ahead of Mr. Putin’s speech, the United Nations, which recognizes Crimea and the separatist-controlled areas as part of Ukraine, underscored the need for “maximum restraint” to avoid escalations.
“We would encourage everyone involved to refrain from any unilateral decision or unilateral action that could undermine the territorial integrity of Ukraine,” UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said.
Earlier, the U.S. ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Michael Carpenter, said Russian recognition of areas of eastern Ukraine outside of government control would be “deplorable” and should be condemned.
After speaking by phone with Mr. Putin in talks to “prevent a catastrophe,” German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s office said the German leader had condemned possible recognition and warned Mr. Putin that the move would be a “unilateral breach” of the Minsk accords aimed at a peaceful resolution of Ukraine’s eight-year war with Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine.
Ukrainian Foreign Affairs Minister Dmytro Kuleba noted “a lot of emotions” but said in a tweet that “it’s exactly now that we all should calmly focus on de-escalation efforts. No other way.”
A short time earlier, Mr. Kuleba said he had urged UN Security Council members to convene under an article of the so-called Budapest Memorandum “to discuss urgent actions aimed at de-escalation” along with “practical steps to guarantee the security of Ukraine.”
Mr. Putin appeared at a rare televised meeting of the Russian Security Council on February 21 alongside Foreign Affairs Minister Sergei Lavrov, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, and the Kremlin’s special envoy on Ukraine, Dmitry Kozak, as well as other officials.
Mr. Putin added that there was “no prospect” of a peace plan to end the conflict in eastern Ukraine, where Kyiv has been fighting the separatists since 2014, when Russia also occupied and illegally annexed Ukraine’s Crimea. At least 13,200 people were killed in the conflict so far.
Moscow has insisted that it has no invasion plans. But U.S. President Joe Biden said last week that he believed Mr. Putin might already have decided on an attack, and U.S. media have reported that U.S. intelligence suggests orders have been sent to Russian tactical commanders.
In the Security Council meeting, Mr. Putin said the current discussion was not about “adding” the separatist-controlled areas to Russian territory.
Messrs. Putin and Lavrov also repeated Moscow’s demand that NATO and Western leaders pledge not to allow Ukraine to join the transatlantic military alliance. Mr. Putin repeated that the “threat” for Russia “increases substantially” if Ukraine joins NATO.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has reiterated Kyiv’s hopes of joining the alliance, a goal that was written into the Ukrainian Constitution in 2019, five years into the ongoing conflict with the separatists.
Mr. Zelenskyy has pledged that Ukrainian soldiers will avoid responding to provocations from separatists or Russian forces with tensions ratcheted high after U.S. and other Western officials warned of the risk of so-called false-flag operations to spark a pretext for a Russian offensive.
U.S. national-security adviser Jake Sullivan said on February 21 that “we anticipate they very well may [roll Russian tanks across the border into Ukraine]in the coming hours or days.”
Mr. Lavrov said he planned to meet U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Geneva on February 24.
He also said he plans to travel to Paris the following day to meet with French Foreign Affairs Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian to lay the groundwork for a possible Biden-Putin summit that was suggested by French President Emmanuel Macron.
(With reporting by Reuters and AP)