Russian President Vladimir Putin said Monday he would decide by the end of the day whether to recognise two rebel regions of Ukraine as independent, a move that could set off a potentially catastrophic conflict with Kyiv’s Western-backed government.
Presiding over a long and carefully stage-managed meeting of his powerful Security Council, Putin listened to senior officials say it was time for Russia to recognise the breakaway regions of Donetsk and Lugansk as independent.
Such recognition would put an end to an already shaky peace plan in the separatist conflict, which has rumbled on since 2014 after Moscow annexed Crimea from Ukraine and has left more than 14,000 dead.
Ukraine would either have to accept the loss of a huge chunk of territory, or face an armed conflict with its vastly more powerful neighbour.
Putin told the security council there were “no prospects” for the 2015 Minsk peace accords aimed at resolving the conflict. He made clear the stakes were bigger than ex-Soviet Ukraine, whose efforts to join NATO and the European Union have deeply angered Moscow.
The dramatic meeting — with Putin sitting alone at a desk as his government, military and security chiefs took turns addressing him from a podium — came after weeks of tensions between Moscow and the West over Ukraine.
Ukraine on Monday requested an urgent meeting of the UN Security Council to address the threat, citing security assurances it received in return for giving up its nuclear arsenal in 1994.
The tensions have spiked in recent days after an outbreak of heavy shellfire on Ukraine’s eastern frontline with the separatists and a series of reported incidents on the border with Russia.
– ‘Crush them, harm them’ –
“No, Ukraine did NOT: attack Donetsk or Lugansk, send saboteurs or APCs (armoured personnel carriers) over the Russian border, shell Russian territory, shell Russian border crossing, conduct acts of sabotage,” he said.
Also on Monday, local officials said shelling on the government-held village of Novoluganske, 35 kilometres (25 miles) north of the eastern rebel stronghold Donetsk, had killed a civilian there.
But any hope for diplomacy was faltering, especially in Washington and Kyiv.
“It will be a war waged by Russia on the Ukrainian people to repress them, to crush them, to harm them,” the White House official said.
But Defence Minister Oleksiy Reznikov said there was no sign of Russian forces withdrawing from the border and Moscow-backed rebels continue to shell Ukrainian positions.
Biden has said that US intelligence believes that Putin has made a decision to invade Ukraine and that commanders are readying units to attack within days.