Russian president Vladimir Putin has signed a decree recognising the two breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine as independent entities, and ordered the Russian army to launch what Moscow called a peacekeeping operation in the areas, upping the ante in a crisis the West fears could unleash a war.
Mr Putin told Russia’s defence ministry to deploy troops into the two breakaway regions to “keep the peace” in a decree issued shortly after he signed the recognition decree.
It was not immediately clear the size of the force that Mr Putin was dispatching, when they would cross the border into Ukraine and exactly what their mission would be.
The Russian leader was shown signing the recognition decree as well as agreements on co-operation and friendship with breakaway Luhansk and Donetsk regions on Russian state TV on Monday. The separatist leaders of the two regions were present at the signing ceremony.
The signing ceremony came amid a long televised address in which Mr Putin railed against Ukraine, and shortly after the Kremlin had said Mr Putin had told the leaders of France and Germany that he planned to sign the decree recognising the independence of the two regions held by Russian-backed separatists.
The French and German leaders voiced disappointment after hearing the decision, the Kremlin said in a readout of the phone calls. Moscow's move to recognise the regions is also likely to torpedo a last-minute bid for a Biden-Putin summit to halt the threat of Russia invading Ukraine.
Russia’s rouble tumbled to new weeks-long lows during Mr Putin’s televised address as he spoke from behind a wooden office desk flanked by Russian tricolour flags.
The long address delved into the region's history as far back as the Ottoman empire and as recent as the tensions over Nato's eastward expansion – a key irritant for Moscow. Mr Putin described Ukraine as an integral part of Russia's past without a tradition of genuine statehood of its own. "If Ukraine was to join Nato it would serve as a direct threat to the security of Russia," he said.
With his decision to recognise the regions, Mr Putin brushed off western warnings that such a step would be illegal, would kill off peace negotiations and would trigger sanctions against Moscow.
Ursula von der Leyen and Charles Michel, the presidents of the European Commission and European Council, said in response to the move: “The recognition of the two separatist territories in Ukraine is a blatant violation of international law, the territorial integrity of Ukraine and the Minsk agreements.
“The EU and its partners will react with unity, firmness and determination in solidarity with Ukraine.”
Meawnhile, in a statement, Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney said: "Ireland's support for Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity within its internationally recognised borders and its right to choose its own foreign and security policy path is unwavering."
He added that the State supported “a clear and strong” EU response to Russia’s move to recognise the regions, including “sanctions measures”.
The EU had warned of sanctions from the 27-nation bloc should Moscow annex or recognise the breakaway regions. “If there is annexation, there will be sanctions, and if there is recognition, I will put the sanctions on the table and the ministers will decide,” the EU’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, said after a meeting of the bloc’s foreign ministers.
Recognition of the rebel-held areas could provide a pretext for Russian troops to cross the border into those areas.
The current Ukraine crisis has been triggered by what Washington says is Russia having now massed a force numbering 169,000-190,000 troops in the region, including pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine.
Russia denies any plan to attack its neighbour, which broke away from Moscow’s rule with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. But it has threatened unspecified “military-technical” action unless it received sweeping security guarantees, including a promise that Ukraine will never join Nato.
Separately, Moscow said Ukrainian military saboteurs had tried to enter Russian territory in armed vehicles leading to five deaths, an accusation dismissed as “fake news” by Kyiv.
The developments fit a pattern repeatedly predicted by western governments, who accuse Russia of preparing to fabricate a pretext to invade Ukraine by blaming Kyiv for attacks and relying on pleas for help from separatist proxies.
European financial markets tumbled at the signs of increased confrontation, after having briefly edged higher on the glimmer of hope that a mooted summit might offer a path out of Europe’s biggest military crisis in decades.
At a televised meeting on Monday of his security council, which normally meets behind closed doors, Mr Putin restated Russia’s demands, insisting that it was not enough for the West to say Ukraine was not ready to join Nato at present. He also said he would make a decision “today” on the request for recognition made a few hours earlier by the leaders of the Luhansk and Donetsk regions, which broke away from Kyiv’s control in 2014.
Shelling has intensified since last week along a long-simmering front line between the rebels and Ukrainian forces in east Ukraine. 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.
Officials in Kyiv said shelling on Monday by separatists in eastern Ukraine killed two troops and one civilian, and wounded four soldiers.
‘Worst-case scenario’ looms
The televised security council meeting in Moscow allowed Mr Putin and his top advisers to outline their case. Dmitry Medvedev, the security council’s deputy chairman, told the meeting it was “obvious” that Ukraine did not need the two breakaway regions, and that a majority of Russians would support their independence. Russia already offers passports to residents of the two regions and Mr Medvedev said there were now 800,000 Russian citizens there.
Russian defence minister Sergei Shoigu appeared to raise the stakes even further by saying that Ukraine – which renounced nuclear weapons after independence from the Soviet Union – had a greater “nuclear potential” than Iran or North Korea.
After talks in Brussels with Nato secretary general Jens Stoltenberg, British foreign minister Liz Truss said western countries were preparing for a “worst-case scenario”.
The airlines Lufthansa, KLM and Air France all cancelled flights to Kyiv.
Hours earlier, French president Emmanuel Macron gave hope of a diplomatic solution, saying Mr Putin and his US counterpart Joe Biden had agreed in principle to meet.
Mr Putin said Mr Macron had told him Washington had changed its stance on Russia's security demands, without specifying how. The White House said Mr Biden had accepted the meeting "in principle" but only "if an invasion hasn't happened".
Washington, which heads the Nato alliance, has flatly rejected the idea of excluding Ukraine for good or reversing Nato’s eastward enlargement of the last three decades, but has offered talks on weapons deployments and other security issues.
Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said a call or meeting between Mr Putin and Mr Biden could be set up at any time, but there were no concrete plans yet for a summit.
Mr Macron's office and the White House said details would be worked out by US secretary of state Antony Blinken and Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov later this week.
Mr Lavrov confirmed he planned to meet Mr Blinken in Geneva on Thursday, and said there had been some progress in talks with the West on security.
Mr Blinken has said any meeting would be called off if Russia invades.
‘No one can resolve our issue without us’
Ukraine said it must be included in any decisions aimed at resolving the crisis, and that it had seen warnings online that hackers were preparing to launch cyberattacks on government agencies, banks and the military on Tuesday.
“No one can resolve our issue without us,” top Ukrainian security official Oleksiy Danilov told a briefing.
Russia’s military said a group of saboteurs had crossed the frontier from Ukraine near the Russian city of Rostov on Monday morning, followed by two armoured vehicles coming to evacuate them. It said five members of those forces had been killed when Russian forces repelled them. Ukraine said the report was fake news, and that no Ukrainian forces were present in the Rostov region.
Western countries say they are preparing sanctions that would hit Russian companies and individuals in the event of an invasion. People familiar with the matter said these could include barring US financial institutions from processing transactions for Russian banks.
Austrian chancellor Karl Nehammer said the European Union’s package of sanctions would include stopping certification of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline connecting Russia to Germany, which is awaiting German and EU regulatory approval. Additional reporting: Reuters/Bloomberg/Guardian