Defying West, Putin orders troops to Ukraine rebel regions
President Vladimir Putin ordered Russian troops into two Moscow-backed rebel regions of Ukraine on Monday, defying Western threats of sanctions in a move that could set off a potentially catastrophic war with Kyiv.
Earlier, the Kremlin leader had recognised the independence of two rebel-held areas of the Donetsk and Lugansk regions of Ukraine, paving the way for an operation to deploy part of the potential invasion force he has massed around the country.
In two official decrees, Putin instructed the defence ministry to assume "the function of peacekeeping" in the Donetsk and Lugansk regions. In the same documents, Putin also ordered his foreign ministry to "establish diplomatic relations" with the "republics".
The recognition of the breakaway republics, which form an enclave held by Russia-backed rebels since 2014, triggered international condemnation and a promise of targeted sanctions from the United States and the European Union -- with a broader package of economic punishment to come in the event of invasion.
After a flurry of calls, US President Joe Biden, France's Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz warned that Moscow's gambit "would not go unanswered".
The US leader also promised his Ukrainian counterpart Volodymyr Zelensky that Washington was committed to Ukraine's "territorial integrity".
In Kyiv, Zelensky convened a meeting of his national security council and was due to make a speech later in the night.
Earlier, in an often angry 65-minute televised national address from his Kremlin office, Putin railed against Russia's ex-Soviet neighbour Ukraine as a failed state and "puppet" of the West, repeatedly suggesting it was essentially part of Russia.
He accused the authorities in Kyiv of persecuting Russian speakers and of preparing a "blitzkrieg" against the breakaway regions of Donetsk and Lugansk in Ukraine's east.
"As for those who seized and hold power in Kyiv, we demand an immediate end to their military operations," Putin said.
"Otherwise, all responsibility for the possible continuation of bloodshed will be fully on the conscience of the regime in power in Ukraine."
Putin said it was necessary to "take a long overdue decision, to immediately recognise the independence" of the two regions.
- EU 'will react with sanctions' -
The recognition effectively puts an end to an already shaky peace plan in the separatist conflict, which has rumbled on since 2014, after Moscow annexed Crimea from Ukraine, and has left more than 14,000 dead.
Russia will now deploy troops with the support of separatist officials and Ukraine will now either have to accept the loss of a huge chunk of territory, or face an armed conflict against its vastly more powerful neighbour.
The move drew immediate condemnation from the West, with Prime Minister Boris Johnson calling it "a flagrant violation of the sovereignty and integrity of the Ukraine" and foreign minister Liz Truss declaring: "Tomorrow we will be announcing new sanctions on Russia."
EU chiefs Ursula von der Leyen and Charles Michel promised the bloc "will react with sanctions against those involved in this illegal act".
Putin told his Security Council earlier Monday that there were "no prospects" for the 2015 Minsk peace accords aimed at resolving the Ukraine conflict.
- 'Very big threat' to Russia -
And he made clear the stakes were bigger than Ukraine, whose efforts to join NATO and the European Union have deeply angered Moscow.
"The use of Ukraine as an instrument of confrontation with our country poses a serious, very big threat to us," Putin said.
The dramatic meeting -- with Putin sitting alone at a desk as his government, military and security chiefs took turns addressing him from a podium -- came after weeks of tensions between Moscow and the West over Ukraine.
Western leaders are warning that Russia is planning to invade its pro-Western neighbour after massing more than 150,000 troops on its borders, a claim Moscow has repeatedly denied.
Tensions have spiked in recent days after an outbreak of heavy shellfire on Ukraine's eastern frontline with the separatists and a series of reported incidents on the border with Russia.
Ukrainian officials said two soldiers and a civilian died in the shelling of frontline villages Monday.
In recent weeks, according to US intelligence, Moscow has massed an invasion force of troops, tanks, missile batteries and warships around Ukraine's borders in Belarus, Russia, Crimea and the Black Sea.