In his video address, the Russian president made a straightforward threat to Ukraine, saying Moscow is “prepared to show you what real de-communization looks like”. After claiming earlier today the Kremlin would decide whether or not to recognise the independence of two breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine, Donetsk and Luhansk, Mr Putin has this evening told German chancellor Olaf Scholz and French president Emmanuel Macron he will be signing a decree to go ahead with the move, which he has now confirmed in his speech. The two European leaders “expressed their disappointment with this development of the situation” but “indicated their readiness to continue contacts”.
The Donetsk and Luhansk regions have been contested by Ukraine and Russia-backed rebels for years, and Moscow has since 2019 issued large numbers of passports to people living there.
Despite a ceasefire agreement, violence has been ongoing, and leaders of both areas today asked Mr Putin’s team to recognise their independence.
Mr Putin’s address, in which he claimed Russia was “robbed” by the collapse of the Soviet Union and that Ukraine “has never had traditions of its own statehood”, follows an extraordinary meeting of Russia’s Security Council in Moscow this afternoon, where the president said his government’s priority was to ensure security guarantees are reached with NATO to maintain peace, “not a confrontation”.
The event has been widely described as a staged debate.
Touching upon the decision of the disputed territories, he told his aides: “We’ve been negotiating for eight years.
“We’re at a dead end.”
In Ukraine, where President Volodymyr Zelensky has repeatedly cautioned against overreacting to the Kremlin’s provocations, the sentiment is similar.
The country’s former defence minister Andriy Zagorodnyuk said any attempt by the Kremlin to expand the territory controlled by pro-Moscow separatists would signal a full-scale war.
He told The Guardian: “Those regions are regular towns where people live regular lives. Any attempt to occupy those areas would be direct violent aggression by Russia onto Ukraine. There would be war.
“There would be some attacks, resistance, deaths, casualties, losses. And there would be trials against Putin as a war criminal.”
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He added: “Ukraine has lots of weapons there and Ukraine is not going to give it up just like that. Why the hell should we? It’s like someone comes to [the] UK and says, ‘Now I think this town should belong to France’. Obviously, it’s going to be a very nasty process, dramatic and tragic.
“The legal consequences of that are exactly as if the Russian go to Kiev. It’s the same territory of the same sovereign state.”
Analysts view the recognition of the regions’ independence as a dangerous step in the conflict, hinting the Kremlin might send troops into Ukraine and justify the move by saying it is protecting its people.
As the likelihood of a full-scale attack grows, Mr Putin’s promise he had no intention to invade Russia’s neighbour loses the little value Western nations had up until now granted it.
Only hours ago, he once again insisted on the narrative he has been following since the crisis took strength in October and accused NATO of “using Ukraine as a tool of confrontation against Russia”, pointing at the Alliance’s failure to provide security guarantees as the root of the issue.
Claiming “Russia has always tried to resolve all conflicts by peaceful means”, Mr Putin argued: “But we must understand the reality we are living in, and I have said many times already that if Russia faces a threat like admitting Ukraine into NATO, then the threat against our country will be multiplied.”