Russian President Vladimir Putin recognized two breakaway territories in eastern Ukraine as independent on Monday in a dramatic escalation of the crisis that Western leaders have warned is intended to prepare the ground for a Russian invasion of its western neighbor.
In a televised address to the Russian nation on Monday evening, Putin announced his decision after a long speech filled with historical grievances and bitter complaints about the Ukrainian government, NATO and Western nations including the United States.
Putin did not say whether his decision would trigger military measures, but he declared: “When the level of threat to our country is becoming greater and greater, Russia has every right to take countermeasures to enhance our own security. And that’s how we plan to act.”
The Russian president’s decision to recognize the so-called Luhansk and Donetsk People’s Republics places the West in an urgent and acute dilemma about whether to impose economic sanctions on Moscow.
While Western leaders immediately condemned Putin’s move as a flagrant violation of the Minsk peace accords intended to restore calm to the region, it was not immediately clear whether they would impose any of the severe sanctions they had warned would accompany an attack on Ukraine.
Russia has massed nearly 200,000 troops and sophisticated weapons on Ukraine’s borders, according to Western governments, who have warned that Putin could order an attack at any moment.
Putin conveyed his decision to recognize the two territories in telephone conversations with French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, Russian news agency TASS said, citing the Kremlin press service.
“I deem it necessary to make a decision that should have been made a long time ago — to immediately recognize the independence and sovereignty of the Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic,” Putin said in his televised address.
Western governments had insisted that the Minsk accords represented the only path to settling the nearly eight-year-long war in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine.
Putin’s decision came after he led a lengthy, televised meeting on Monday afternoon of the Russian Security Council, at which the president and his most senior advisers unleashed a barrage of accusations against Ukraine that seemed to lay all the necessary groundwork for war.
Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu warned, for example, that Ukraine was seeking to become a nuclear power again. Putin himself warned that Kyiv might try to retake Crimea by military force. The head of Russia’s Federal Security Service, Alexander Bortnikov, said saboteurs had been thwarting trying to carry out attacks in the occupied areas.
The officials offered no evidence to back up their assertions, and Western and Ukrainian leaders have dismissed a litany of Russian allegations against Kyiv in recent days as baseless.
Putin’s move blows apart the effort to implement the Minsk peace accords, a set of agreements brokered in 2014 and 2015 that called for a ceasefire and for a series of political steps that would eventually lead to “special status” or limited political autonomy for the disputed territories. The agreements, however, were vaguely worded, leaving Ukraine and Russia unwilling to implement many of its terms.
Independent analysts also said the agreements were flawed because they designated Russia as a guarantor of the peace process, along with France and Germany, rather than as a party to the conflict, even though the Kremlin was clearly organizing, financing and arming the separatist forces in Donbass.
In recent days, Western governments said that separatist leaders had undertaken false flag operations, apparently seeking to create a pretext for Russian military intervention. Separatist authorities also initiated a wide-scale evacuation of civilians, claiming there would be an imminent attack by the Ukrainian Armed Forces. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has repeatedly denied those charges and said his forces are under orders to show restraint.
Lili Bayer and David M. Herszenhorn contributed reporting.
This article has been updated.