US to sanction breakaway regions of Ukraine after Russia recognises their independence

EU leaders criticise ‘blatant violation of international law’ following Putin move

Russian president Vladimir Putin's declaration on Monday that Russia is recognising the independence of two breakaway regions of Ukraine was greeted in the US and Europe with dismay and warnings of sanctions.

There was also alarm at Mr Putin’s warnings of further action against Ukraine as a whole, during a televised address on Monday in which he questioned the country’s legitimacy and suggested it presented a direct threat to Russia.

“The speech was full of grudges and imperial hubris, which signifies a very dangerous turn of events,” a senior eastern European official said. “He definitely doesn’t need those occupied territories, Luhansk and Donetsk, which are in very bad shape and need a lot of money. He wants Ukraine, and it’s probably only the beginning of a larger escalation.”

The latest moves came amid continued tension over a Russian military build-up along its border with Ukraine, which has led to fears Moscow is planning a military incursion.

Following Mr Putin's declaration of recognition, the White House announced the prohibition of US investment in or trade with the breakaway regions of Luhansk and Donetsk in the country's east and potential sanctions against anyone operating within the Moscow-backed territories.

"We will also soon announce additional measures related to today's blatant violation of Russia's international commitments," White House spokesperson Jen Psaki said.

The UK foreign secretary, Liz Truss, said British sanctions would come on Tuesday in response to the "breach of international law and attack on Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity".

Ursula von der Leyen and Charles Michel, the presidents of the European Commission and European Council, said: "The recognition of the two separatist territories in Ukraine is a blatant violation of international law, the territorial integrity of Ukraine and the Minsk [peace] agreements [seeking to end the conflict in relation to the breakaway regions].

“The EU and its partners will react with unity, firmness and determination in solidarity with Ukraine.”

British prime minister Boris Johnson said Mr Putin's decision was "plainly in breach of international law. It is a flagrant violation of the sovereignty and integrity of Ukraine." He also described it as an "ill omen" and a "dark sign" that things were moving in the wrong direction.

Alar Karis, the president of Estonia, said: "Estonia will never accept the illegal decision by Russia to recognise Donetsk and Luhansk regions.

“They are an internationally recognised part of Ukraine, like Crimea.

“Clearly, Moscow is not serious about diplomacy but is looking for casus belli.”

In a statement after Mr Putin's address, Nato secretary general Jens Stoltenberg accused Russia of continuing to fuel the conflict in eastern Ukraine and "trying to stage a pretext" for a further invasion. Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014.

US response

US president Joe Biden spoke to his Ukrainian counterpart, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, during the second half of Mr Putin's rambling near hour-long address, before calling German chancellor Olaf Scholz, and French president Emmanuel Macron. As Mr Putin staged a security council meeting on Monday, and ahead of the Russian leader's televised address on Monday evening, Mr Biden summoned his top national security officials at the White House, including CIA director William Burns and the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, Gen Mark Milley.

It was not immediately clear whether Mr Putin’s declaration would mean the cancellation of a potential summit between Mr Biden and Mr Putin on the Ukraine crisis. The Kremlin had earlier played down the prospect of the summit as “premature”, while the US made clear it would not take place if Russia invaded.

On Monday afternoon, Ukrainian foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba demanded an emergency session of the UN security council aimed at de-escalation. Russia is the current chair of the council, but is obliged to grant a meeting if a council member state demands it. Ukraine's allies in the council were waiting for a formal Ukrainian request to be present so they could call for the council meeting.

European officials noted that Russian recognition of the Moscow-backed separatist regions of Luhansk and Donetsk meant the end of the eight-year-old Minsk peace process, and in practical terms would amount to Russian annexation.

At the end of a meeting of EU foreign ministers, the bloc's foreign affairs chief, Josep Borrell, had said a package of prepared EU sanctions would be triggered by Russian recognition of Donetsk and Luhansk territories, but he said the extent of the sanctions would reflect "the level of aggression".

He told reporters that he would put forward the action at an extraordinary meeting for the EU capitals to sign off should Mr Putin follow through on the threat to recognise the regions.

Mr Borrell said recognition by Russia of the independence of the eastern territories of Ukraine would be a breach of international law that the EU would not ignore.

‘Severe costs’

The EU has threatened “severe costs and massive consequences” in the event of a further Russian incursion into Ukraine. The package has yet to be made public but it would involve a block on exports of key electrical components on which Russia is reliant, potentially an import ban on Russian oil and gas, and the freezing of assets of individuals and companies affiliated with the government in Moscow.

After a tense 10-hour meeting of the EU's 27 foreign ministers, Mr Borrell said on Monday that Belarus was being annexed by Russia and its government would face the same "massive" sanctions as Moscow should there be an invasion of Ukraine from its territory.

The former Spanish foreign minister said the Belarusian president, Alexander Lukashenko, was allowing his country to become a Russian satellite state. – Guardian