Russian President Vladimir Putin stated that he will decide whether or not to recognize independence from the eastern Ukraine separatists later Monday. This would increase tensions between the West and Russia amid concerns that Moscow might launch an imminent invasion of Ukraine.
European leaders exhorted Putin not to be recognized, while the EU’s foreign policy chief warned of sanctions in case he did. Ukraine’s president convened an emergency meeting of top security officials.
The Kremlin said Putin told the leaders of Germany and France that that he would sign a “relevant decree” soon in response to the separatist leaders’ pleas to recognize their independence. It didn’t elaborate on what the decree would say.
According to the Kremlin, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and French President Emmanuel Macron “voiced their disappointment with such a development” but “voiced readiness to continue contacts.”
An estimated 150,000 Russian troops are presently based on Ukraine’s three borders. The U.S. warns that Moscow may have already made plans to invade. In an attempt to stop war, both the Russian and American Presidents agreed to possibly meet.
Russia may move in to cancel the meeting, however, it revives hopes of diplomacy preventing a catastrophic conflict that could cause huge casualties in Europe and massive economic harm.
European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said at an EU foreign ministers meeting in Brussels that “If there is a recognition, I will put sanctions on the table and the (EU) ministers will decide” whether to agree to impose the restrictive measures on Russia.
While diplomatic efforts were making progress, the potential for flashpoints increased. Sustained shelling continued Monday in Ukraine’s east. Unusually, Russia said it had fended off an “incursion” from Ukraine — which Ukrainian officials denied. Russia also decided to extend military drills held in Belarus. This could be used as an opportunity for attacking Kyiv the capital of Ukraine.
At Monday’s meeting, Putin’s top defense and security officials paraded before him one by one to outline arguments for recognizing the regions as independent to protect civilians there. At one point, one slipped up and said he favored including them as part of Russian territory—but Putin quickly corrected him.
Others suggested however that Russia allow the West to give Ukraine a few extra days to force it to sign a peace deal that would have halted significant fighting in 2015.
Leaders of the region released statements on Monday urging Putin to acknowledge them and to sign military aid agreements to help them against what they called an ongoing Ukrainian military assault. Russia’s lower house of parliament made the same plea last week.
Ukrainian authorities claim that Russia provoked them and deny their offensive.
The Kremlin first indicated its disinterest in recognizing the eastern regions of Ukraine. This would have a significant diplomatic coup for Moscow. It required the Ukrainian authorities to give a wide self-rule to rebel areas.
The deal was resented by many in Ukraine who saw it as a capitulation, a blow to the country’s integrity and a betrayal of national interests. Putin and other officials claimed Monday that Ukrainian authorities had shown little interest in the deal’s implementation.
The prospect of war was imminent, and the French President Emmanuel Macron tried to arrange a meeting with U.S. President Joe Biden, Putin. He denies that he plans to attack Ukraine.
Russia says it wants Western guarantees that NATO won’t allow Ukraine and other former Soviet countries to join as members—and Putin said Monday a simple moratorium on Ukraine’s accession wouldn’t be enough. Moscow has also demanded the alliance halt weapons deployments to Ukraine and roll back its forces from Eastern Europe—demands flatly rejected by the West.
Macron’s office said both leaders had “accepted the principle of such a summit,” to be followed by a broader meeting that would include other “relevant stakeholders to discuss security and strategic stability in Europe.”
While Washington’s language was less cautious than Moscow’s, both sides acknowledged that there is a meeting under discussion.
Many top Kremlin officials expressed doubts about the possibility of a summit and said it would not yield any results.
U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan, meanwhile, said the administration has always been ready to talk to avert a war—but was also prepared to respond to any attack.
“So when President Macron asked President Biden yesterday if he was prepared in principle to meet with President Putin, if Russia did not invade, of course President Biden said yes,” he told NBC’s “Today” show on Monday. “But every indication we see on the ground right now in terms of the disposition of Russian forces is that they are, in fact, getting prepared for a major attack on Ukraine.”
Macron’s office said that U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov are set to lay the groundwork for the potential summit when they meet Thursday. Lavrov was set to meet France’s foreign minister Friday.
Learn more The Threat of a Russian Invasion Is Crushing Ukraine’s Economy and Culture
There were some worrying signs among the positive ones. Since Thursday, shelling has spiked along the tense line of contact that separates Ukrainian forces and Russian-backed rebels in Ukraine’s eastern industrial heartland of Donbas. Over 14,000 people have been killed since conflict erupted there in 2014, shortly after Moscow annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula.
The separatist rebels and Ukraine have been blaming each other for ceasefire violations that resulted in hundreds of explosions per day.
Russia-backed separatists claimed that Ukrainian forces fired on residential areas. However Associated Press journalists covering several villages and towns in Ukrainian-held territory along a line of contact did not witness any significant escalation and documented evidence of increased shelling by separatists, which destroyed houses and ripped down roads.
Some residents of the main rebel-held city of Donetsk described sporadic shelling by Ukrainian forces, but they added that it wasn’t on the same scale as earlier in the conflict.
Separatist officials Monday claimed that four civilians had been killed in the last 24 hours by Ukrainian shelling and many more were injured. Ukraine’s military said two Ukrainian soldiers were killed over the weekend, and another serviceman was wounded Monday.
Ukrainian military spokesman Pavlo Kovalchyuk said the separatists were “cynically firing from residential areas using civilians as shields.” He insisted that Ukrainian forces weren’t returning fire.
In the village of Novognativka on the Ukraine government-controlled side, 60-year-old Ekaterina Evseeva, said the shelling was worse than at the height of fighting early in the conflict.
“We are on the edge of nervous breakdowns. And there is nowhere to run,” she said, her voice trembling.
In another worrying sign, the Russian military said it killed five suspected “saboteurs” who crossed from Ukraine into Russia’s Rostov region and also destroyed two armored vehicles and took a Ukrainian serviceman prisoner. Ukrainian Border Guard spokesman Andriy Demchenko dismissed the claim as “disinformation.”
In response to increased invasion concerns, the U.S. administration wrote a letter to United Nations Human Rights Chief claiming that Moscow had created a list of Ukrainians for death or transfer to detention centers after the invasion. The Associated Press obtained the letter from the New York Times.
Dmitry Peskov (Kremlin spokesperson) said that this claim is false and that there’s no such list.
— Karmanau reported from Kyiv, Ukraine, and Cook from Brussels. Lori Hinnant, Angela Charlton, Zeke Miller and Aamer madhani were reported from Paris. Geir Molson was also in Berlin. Darlene SUPERVILLE, Robert Burns, Matthew Lee, and Matthew Lee contributed to this article.