Russian President Vladimir Putin addresses the nation on Monday before signing a decree recognizing the independence of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic and the Luhansk People's Republic. Kremlin Pool Photo by Aleksey Nikolsky/EPA-EFE
Feb. 21 (UPI) -- Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday ordered "peacekeeping" troops into two separatist regions of eastern Ukraine under new decrees recognizing them as independent republics.
The decrees were published late Monday night and are effective immediately. Under their terms, Putin recognized the self-declared Donetsk and Lugansk People's Republics -- also known as the DNR and LNR -- and ordered the "implementation of peacekeeping functions" by the Russian armed forces.
The documents show the agreements have been approved for a 10-year period -- long enough to allow Russia to build military bases in Donetsk and Luhansk and jointly patrol their borders with Ukraine, The Washington Post reported.
The moves served to further ratchet up tensions in a crisis that the United States and European leaders have repeatedly warned is a cover for a Russian invasion of Ukraine.
French President Emmanuel Macron said he has called for an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council on the situation in the hopes of preventing a military conflict.
Putin signed the decrees following an address to the Russian people Monday evening in which he said the situation in Ukraine's Donbas region "is critical again," declaring that "modern Ukraine was entirely created by Russia" and that it "is not just a neighbor for us. It is an inseparable part of our own history, culture, spiritual space."
He also repeated claims that the Ukrainian government is launching artillery attacks and fomenting bloodshed in the disputed Donbas region, CNN reported.
Kiev has denied those claims as fabricated.
"I categorically refute Russian disinformation," Ukraine Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba wrote on Twitter. "Ukraine did not attack Donetsk or Luhansk; did not send saboteurs or armored personnel carriers across the border; did not fire on Russian territory or checkpoints at the border; did not commit sabotage [and] does not plan such actions. I demand from Russia to stop the 'fake news' immediately."
The move came after European leaders urged Putin not to grant recognition to the breakaway regions, calling it a violation of the seven-year peace deal known as the Minsk Agreements.
Within minutes of Putin signing the decrees, U.S. President Joe Biden and the European Union responded by announcing new sanctions.
Biden issued an executive order prohibiting new investment, trade and financing by U.S. persons to, from, or in the so-called DNR and LNR regions of Ukraine.
It also provides authority to "impose sanctions on any person determined to operate in those areas of Ukraine" and is separate from and in addition to "the swift and severe economic measures we have been preparing in coordination with allies and partners should Russia further invade Ukraine," the White House said.
In Brussels, European Council President Charles Michel and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen issued a joint statement condemning "in the strongest possible terms" the decision to recognize the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts of Ukraine as independent entities.
"This step is a blatant violation of international law as well as of the Minsk agreements," they said. "The Union will react with sanctions against those involved in this illegal act."
U.N. Secretary General António Guterres called Russia's action "a violation" of Ukraine's "territorial integrity and sovereignty."
"The United Nations, in line with the relevant General Assembly resolutions, remains fully supportive of the sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of Ukraine, within its internationally recognized borders," he said.
"We call upon President Putin to respect international law and the Minsk agreements and expect him not to recognize the independence of the Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts," European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell told reporters in Brussels, adding, "We are ready to react with a strong united front in case he should decide to do so."
Biden spoke with Macron and Scholz Monday and all three "strongly condemned" Putin's decision to recognize the so-called DNR and LNR regions of Ukraine as "independent," the White House said in a readout of the call.
The three leaders also "discussed how they will continue to coordinate their response on next steps."
"Kremlin recognition of the so-called 'Donetsk and Luhansk People's Republics' as 'independent' requires a swift and firm response, and we will take appropriate steps in coordination with partners," U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said in a tweet.
White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan said the United States has intelligence indicating Russia is planning an "extremely violent" invasion of Ukraine in which it will seek to "crush" the Ukrainian people.
Sullivan, appearing on NBC's Today, said the Biden administration wants to use diplomacy to settle the crisis peacefully but added Washington is also "prepared to respond decisively if Russia moves on Ukraine," adding, "If Russia chooses to move against any NATO country... they will be met with the full force of American and allied might."
Earlier Monday, Putin met with the Russian Security Council, which approved of the decision to recognize the breakaway republics.
Putin said during the meeting that Russia's priority is peace, but noted that allowing Ukraine to join NATO would be a security threat to his country.
"At the end of last year, we stepped up our efforts with our main partners in Washington and NATO to finally agree on security measures and to ensure the peaceful development of our country. This is our priority, not a confrontation," he said.
Macron said Sunday that Biden and Putin have agreed in principle to meet for a summit and seek a diplomatic solution to the crisis.
The White House had said a meeting could take place on the condition that Russia does not invade Ukraine.
Kuleba said on Monday that Kiev, and possibly other allies, should be part of discussions to resolve the crisis.
"The most suitable format for the discussion regarding de-escalation and forming new guarantees of security would be a summit in the following format: five permanent U.N. Security Council members, plus Ukraine, Germany and Turkey," he said, according to CNN.
Blinken and Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov are scheduled to meet on Thursday, the White House said.
Moscow on Monday also denied reports that said Russian officials have created a list of potential targets in Ukraine that would follow an invasion.
U.S. officials noted the "kill list" in a letter to United Nations human rights chief Michelle Bachelet and cited "credible information" about a list of people whom Russian forces should kill or detain if they attack Ukraine.
The letter was reported by The New York Times and The Washington Post.
The targets on the "kill list," the letter says, would likely include dissident Russian opposition leaders and anti-corruption activists living in Ukraine, along with journalists, religious minorities and LGBTQ members.
"We are deeply concerned about Russia's continuing human rights abuses in the parts of Ukraine it already occupies and has every reason to believe those concerns will multiply following a new military offensive," the letter states.
At the news conference on Monday, a Kremlin spokesman strongly denied the existence of such a letter.
Late Monday, Blinken urged U.S. citizens in Ukraine to leave immediately while announcing State Department personnel in the western city of Lviv will spend the night in Poland but will return to continue their diplomatic work and provide emergency consular services.
"Russia has ordered troops to deploy into the so-called DNR and LNR regions of Ukraine," he said in a statement. "In the event of an attack, U.S. citizens should seek shelter in a hardened structure and monitor major news outlets for guidances on when it is safe to move."