Vladimir Putin's announcement on Monday night that Russia has formally recognised the Ukrainian regions of Donetsk and Luhansk marks a dangerous and unilateral escalation that appears to set the path for Russian aggression. An all-out assault on Kyiv and eastern Ukraine, which the Russian president threatened in a rambling and fiery speech from the Kremlin, could occur at any moment, plunging Europe into its worst security crisis since the second World War.
Since the beginning of the current crisis provoked by Russia’s massive military buildup around Ukraine, some analysts have suggested that, for Putin, diplomatic efforts have been aimed less at resolving the impasse than at buying time and preparing the Russian public for inevitable military confrontation.
That argument was reinforced by a highly choreographed day in Moscow, which began with the announcement that Putin and his US counterpart Joe Biden were "in principle" willing to meet to discuss the crisis. That agreement, brokered by French president Emmanuel Macron, did little to ease international concerns amid further signs of military preparations among Russian forces and US warnings that Putin had already decided to invade.
Whatever hope western capitals might have invested in that diplomatic track quickly faded. At a scripted televised meeting with his chief defence and diplomatic advisers, Putin signalled that he was ready to recognise the two breakaway regions, Donetsk and Luhansk. That he duly did within hours, after another televised address that mixed historical revisionism and self-pity with extraordinary bellicose language. Sprinkling his speech with baseless and distorted claims, Putin focused on a litany of grievances about Ukraine, whose right to exist as a sovereign state he openly challenged.
Strikingly absent from the speech was any focus on the issues that Putin has claimed for weeks lay behind the current crisis, including Nato’s presence in eastern Europe and the lack of a role for Russia in Europe’s security architecture. Instead he ranted darkly about Russia’s lost empire, the West’s role in the Soviet collapse, the ungrateful “regime” in Kyiv and its aim of “genocide” in the Donbass.
Putin’s move in Luhansk and Donetsk is not mere symbolism; it will have very real and lasting effects. By recognising the two entities, both run by puppet-leaders, as independent states, he can invade on the pretext of protecting them.
Even if Putin goes no further, that will be a serious breach of international law and an open challenge to Europe and the US. Anything less than the full and immediate imposition of the tough sanctions package agreed by western allies in recent weeks would amount to a terrible failure.