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In long speech, Putin recognizes two Ukrainian regions as independent, a potential pretext for war

Russian President Vladimir Putin signs a document recognizing the independence of separatist regions in eastern Ukraine on Feb. 21. (Alexei Nikolsky/Pool/AP)
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MOSCOW — Russian President Vladimir Putin gave a long televised speech to his nation Monday, sharing his own take on Ukraine’s history and denying its statehood before signing a declaration to recognize two Moscow-backed separatist regions of eastern Ukraine — creating a potential pretext to send in military forces.

Putin signed a decree recognizing the areas and agreed to cooperate with the heads of the two regions: Denis Pushilin of the Donetsk People’s Republic and Leonid Pasechnik of the Luhansk People’s Republic.

The leaders of the two regions asked Putin on Monday for recognition and for military assistance, raising the prospect that they may invite Russian forces in.

Putin has accused Ukraine of “genocide” against the regions, claiming Kyiv has mounted intensifying military attacks. The claims were rejected as disinformation by Ukrainian officials Monday. Putin has produced no evidence for his accusation.

Live updates: Moscow recognizes two Ukrainian territories as independent

In his television address, he said the decision to recognize the sovereignty and independence of the two regions “should have been taken a long time ago.”

He asserted without evidence that Ukraine was “torturing” people, including women and children, and he repeated the genocide claim.

Russia’s recognition of the republics could give him a pretext to send military forces to Ukraine, given his claims that Kyiv forces are attacking the areas. Ukrainian officials Monday repeatedly denied the attacks, and Western officials have warned that Moscow is manufacturing a reason to invade.

His move to see the territories as sovereign statelets also breaches the 2015 Minsk peace agreement, which was supposed to restore the two separatist regions to Ukraine’s control.

Putin excoriated Ukraine’s leaders In his television address, questioned their legitimacy and called the country “a colony with puppets at its helm” where Russian speakers were oppressed.

“Ukraine has never had its own authentic statehood. There has never been a sustainable statehood in Ukraine,” he said. He warned that Ukraine could develop its own nuclear weapons, calling this a “real threat,” claiming that the West was using Ukraine as “theater of potential warfare” against Russia and might help Kyiv to develop them.

U.S. says Russia has list of Ukrainians ‘to be killed or sent to camps’ after a military occupation

The White House on Monday confirmed that President Biden and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky had spoken on the phone during Putin’s address. Biden met with his national security team earlier in the day.

Putin also attacked NATO’s expansion, saying Western countries wanted to hold Russia back and had never taken Moscow’s concerns into account.

“NATO completely ignores our protests. They spit on them and do whatever they want. And they wanted to continue to do so,” he said. “But we did not agree to it.”

Russia fomented separatist uprising in two regions of eastern Ukraine after annexing Crimea in 2014, following Ukraine’s Maidan revolution, which ousted a pro-Moscow leader.

The conflict over the regions has claimed almost 14,000 lives and continues to this day. The Minsk deal was supposed to stop the fighting and return the regions to Ukraine’s control, but it was vaguely worded and never implemented.

Moscow insisted the regions get broad autonomy under the deal, but Kyiv argued that implementing the deal on these terms would give Moscow a lever to control Ukraine’s foreign policy and halt its tilt to the West, undermining Ukraine’s sovereignty.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said last week that Russia recognizing the separatist regions would be “a gross violation of international law” that would further violate Ukraine’s territorial integrity. He said such a move would “necessitate a swift and firm response from the United States in full coordination with our allies and partners.”

Putin called French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz on Monday evening to tell them of his decision after an extraordinary meeting of his hawkish Security Council where officials stood up one by one to urge him to recognize the regions. The Kremlin said Macron and Scholz expressed their disappointment but agreed to maintain contacts.

Earlier, Putin sat at a table with Security Council officials seated in chairs arrayed at a distance, calling each of them to hear their recommendation. At one point, he asked whether any official had a dissenting view and was met with silence.

Moscow has been preparing the ground for years — issuing Russian passports to 800,000 Ukrainians in the two separatist regions since 2019 — for Russia to send in forces to “defend” them as its own citizens.

Tatiana Stanovaya, political analyst and head of R.Politik analytical consultancy, said Putin had mistaken the degree of domestic support for his “Russian rescue operation” in Ukraine.

“Today is the day when Vladimir Putin went over to the dark side of history. It is the beginning of the end of his regime, which only has bayonets to rely on,” she said in comments on Telegram.

She said Russians would not protest after Putin’s widespread crackdowns arresting opposition figures and activists, which forced many to flee the country, “but he won’t get widespread support, either.”

With Russian forces now expected to enter the separatist regions, questions remain on whether Putin will try to pursue a broader invasion of Ukraine to seize territory beyond the regions, topple Zelensky’s government and force the nation’s capitulation, as U.S. officials have warned.

Military analyst Michael Kofman of the Virginia-based research group CNA, said the recognition of the territories probably presaged a major Russian invasion.

He said on Twitter that Russia did not need 190,000 troops on Ukraine’s borders to recognize the independence of separatist republics. “These troops are not even near the Donbas. This is the first step in what will likely be a large-scale Russian military operation to impose regime change.”

Putin made clear that Russia would never accept Ukraine’s membership of NATO, calling this a direct threat to Russian security, and he rejected Western assurances that there were no plans for this anytime soon.

“Over and over again they try to convince us that NATO is a purely defensive alliance, again offering to take our word for it, but we know the real price of such words,” Putin said.