Amid fears Russia was trying to manufacture a reason to invade Ukraine on Monday, President Vladimir Putin held an extraordinary televised meeting in which he and his top officials discussed Kyiv’s future.
Some of Russia’s most influential officials urged Putin to recognize as independent states two breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine, where Moscow has been supporting separatists fighting Kyiv since 2014. Ensuing violence has killed some 14,000 people.
Such a move would be seen as a huge provocation by Ukraine, the United States and its European allies, effectively torpedoing any hopes of reviving a ceasefire agreement and could be a trigger for further violence.
Before the meeting, the leaders of the two breakaway regions, the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic, requested Putin to recognize their independence. That came after Russia’s lower house of Parliament voted last Tuesday to ask Putin to do the same.
Last week, separatist leaders called for evacuations of civilians to Russia, warning of an imminent Ukrainian offensive. Ukraine has repeatedly denied any plans to carry out attacks on the region, saying it wants a resolution by diplomatic means.
More than 60,000 evacuees have arrived in Russia as of Monday, according to Russian emergency ministry officials.
Meanwhile, in a series of phone calls that dragged late into the night on Sunday, French President Emmanuel Macron tried to broker a meeting between the American and Russian presidents to meet in a bid to avert Europe’s gravest crisis since the Cold War.
President Joe Biden accepted a meeting with Putin “in principle” if Russia doesn’t invade Ukraine first, according to the White House. The Kremlin said there were “no concrete plans” for a summit, but had not ruled one out.
On Sunday, a US official and another person with knowledge of the matter said that the US had obtained intelligence showing that Russian military officials were given an order to go ahead with an invasion.
The intelligence, which was developed very recently, informed Biden’s startling declaration Friday that the US believes Putin has already decided to invade, they said.
And on Monday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said he would meet Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Thursday in Geneva, Switzerland — a possible precursor to a Biden-Putin summit.
Russia has been amazing tens of thousands of troops near Ukraine’s borders in recent weeks, prompting fears of an invasion that it firmly denies it is planning.
Moscow has extended massive military drills with its close ally Belarus, to Ukraine’s north. The drills were meant to wrap up Sunday, adding to the tensions and speculation that Russia could use the military build-up there to attack Ukraine from the north.
The renewed flurry of diplomacy comes amid increased shelling in Ukraine, where independent monitors over the weekend reported a markedly rise in the number of cease-fire violations.
The US and its allies have accused Russia of planning to stage “false flag” operations in the region that could be used as an excuse for an incursion.
Since the shelling in the region began escalating on Thursday, the Ukrainian forces and separatists have traded blame and accused each other of provocations. Ukraine’s military said two Ukrainian soldiers had been killed in the increased violence over the weekend, and the separatist forces reported two civilian deaths on Sunday.
On Monday, both Ukrainian forces and separatists reported continued shelling of residential settlements.
Ukraine said late Sunday the separatist forces fired on rebel-controlled Luhansk in a provocation aimed at laying blame on the Ukrainian forces.
Meanwhile, Russia’s FSB security service said on Monday a shell from Ukrainian territory had completely destroyed a border guard post in Russia’s Rostov region but had caused no casualties, the state-run Interfax news agency reported. The incident occurred around 500 feet from the border between Russia and Ukraine, Interfax cited the FSB as saying.
Ukraine’s defense minister Oleksii Reznikov told reporters that Ukraine had “nothing to do” with the attack. In a separate statement, Ukraine’s border service called FBS’s claims “an outright provocation.”
Fears of a Russian invasion have caused collateral damage for Ukrainian economy, but on Monday, Russia’s markets also showed signs of nervousness.
The ruble slid to a more than three-week low, and Russian stocks plunged, Reuters reported.