Russian President Vladimir Putin said Monday that separatist militias that control parts of eastern Ukraine should treat those regions as independent countries — saying he wants to redraw borders in Europe in the most significant way in decades and hinting that he would deploy Russian forces to make that happen.
Putin announced his position in a televised address in which he questioned whether Ukraine and other nations that emerged from the Soviet Union should be independent and accused Western governments of threatening Russia. He later ordered Russian troops to the Ukrainian regions.
The Russian leader’s move dramatically escalates the security crisis in Eastern Europe, where he has posted 150,000 troops in recent weeks and the U.S. has warned that a devastating all-out war could break out. Putin first revealed his decision in a call to his French and German counterparts on Monday evening ― scuttling a yearslong diplomatic process by their two countries to end fighting between Ukraine and Russian-backed separatists.
“We are not afraid of anyone,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy told the nation after Russia recognized the separatist regions’ independence.
President Joe Biden has repeatedly said American troops will not fight Russians on behalf of Ukraine. But he has sent the Ukrainians military support and posted thousands of U.S. soldiers in European ally countries that worry Moscow will prompt regional chaos or threaten them. Biden met with his national security team, including the secretaries of state and defense, as Putin was speaking, according to a White House statement. The president also spoke with Zelenskyy.
Officials in the U.S. and its allied countries say allowing Russia to force changes in other countries against their will risks instability and widespread violence. They have promised to slap aggressive sanctions on Putin for a further incursion into Ukraine.
From Moscow’s point of view, the Ukrainian government in Kyiv has grown alarmingly close to the West since Ukrainian demonstrators toppled a Putin-linked ruler in 2014. In his speech, Putin claimed that Western officials now run the country and their Ukrainian partners are mismanaging post-Soviet institutions down to the postal service and trying to quash their people’s historic ties to Russia.
Russia has sought to retain influence over neighboring countries like Ukraine and challenged their bids to explore other partnerships such as the NATO military alliance. As Putin has built up his deployment along Ukraine’s borders, he has urged Western leaders to promise to never let the country join NATO and issued other demands such as a NATO withdrawal from the Baltic countries of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia — democratic treaty allies of the U.S.
Biden, French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz have tried to negotiate with their Russian counterpart by hinting that they do not see Ukraine as a candidate for NATO membership and offering to recognize Russia’s stature and interests. On Sunday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said in an emailed statement that Biden was willing to hold a high-profile summit with Putin “if an invasion hasn’t happened.”
“We are always ready for diplomacy,” Psaki said. “We are also ready to impose swift and severe consequences should Russia instead choose war. And currently, Russia appears to be continuing preparations for a full-scale assault on Ukraine very soon.”
Josep Borrell, the foreign policy chief for the European Union, said Monday that Russia would face EU sanctions over recognizing the Ukrainian rebels’ claim to sovereignty.
Analysts are now watching how far Russia will go to support the independence of the Ukrainian separatists: whether Putin tells Russian troops to fight the Western-backed Ukrainian military and whether the conflict expands beyond the borders of the breakaway Ukrainian regions, which are collectively known as the Donbas.
“The best-case scenario ― from a human life standpoint ― is that it all ends at the current line of control: if Russian troops go in and Ukrainian troops fortify but don’t try to push the [line] forward,” Sam Greene, a professor at King’s College London, tweeted on Monday. Some of his colleagues foresee a more dreary result. To Michael Kofman of the CNA think tank, the size of the Russian deployment suggests Putin has greenlit an operation that extends beyond the Donbas “to impose regime change” in Ukraine.
For the Biden administration and its partners, the coming days will involve complex diplomacy and likely pressure on Moscow ― though officials and experts have struggled to craft an effective strategy given Putin’s focus on the matter and frequently shifting narrative of the crisis.
“It’s hard to listen to this speech and believe that any of the partial concessions that have been suggested - withdrawing the possibility of NATO membership from Ukraine in particular - would have made any difference,” national security commentator Cheryl Rofer tweeted amid the Russian leader’s remarks.