Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday ordered Russian forces to enter and conduct “peacekeeping functions” in two breakaway regions of eastern Ukraine that he recognized as independent earlier in the day.
In decrees published late Monday night and effective immediately, Putin ordered the “implementation of peacekeeping functions” by the Russian armed forces in the self-declared Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics.
The move came hours after Putin recognized two territories as independent republics in a dramatic escalation of a crisis triggered by Moscow that Western leaders have warned is a pretext for a Russian invasion of its western neighbor.
EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell condemned Putin’s orders as “another outright aggression against Ukraine, a violation of its territorial integrity and sovereignty” and called for an urgent meeting of the U.N. Security Council, which is currently chaired by Russia.
Putin announced his decision at the end of a televised speech to the Russian nation 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 for 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.”
Both the European Union and the United States announced they would impose sanctions over the decision to recognize the breakaway territories.
However, those measures appeared limited in scope, leaving room for the West to impose much more severe sanctions if Russia launches a new military assault 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 condemned the recognition as a flagrant violation of the Minsk peace accords, which they have insisted represented the only path to settling the nearly eight-year-long war in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine.
“Moscow continues to fuel the conflict in eastern Ukraine by providing financial and military support to the separatists. It is also trying to stage a pretext to invade Ukraine once again,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg declared in a statement responding to Putin’s move.
In his ominous tirade, Putin lambasted Ukraine as a puppet-state with no tradition of nationhood and described it as a creation of Bolshevik Russia.
“Ukraine for us is not just a neighboring country. It is an integral part of our own history, culture, spiritual space,” Putin said.
The Russian president left few stones unturned in cataloging the supposed wrongs that Ukraine and its Western allies were meant to have committed against Moscow. Putin slammed the popular uprising of the Maidan revolution of 2014 as a coup, then proceeded to portray Kyiv’s leaders as extremists who were out to threaten Russia’s security, foment unrest in Crimea and persecute Russian-speakers.
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 extraordinary accusations against Ukraine — without offering any evidence — that seemed to lay the 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 thwarted trying to carry out attacks in the occupied areas.
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.
This article has been updated.