Russia Appears Poised to Recognize Ukraine’s Separatist Regions

Western officials warned recognition would kill the 2015 Minsk agreement—and give Moscow a pretext for military action.

By , , and
Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a meeting with Russia’s Security Council.
Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a meeting with Russia’s Security Council.
Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a meeting with members of Russia’s Security Council in Moscow on Feb. 21. Alexey Nikolsky/Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images

Russia appears poised to recognize Ukraine’s breakaway regions in the eastern province of Donbass following a highly choreographed televised meeting of the country’s Security Council, chaired by Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday.

Western officials have warned that recognition of the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics would spell the end of the Minsk accords, a 2015 peace deal that sought to resolve the conflict in the Donbass, where separatists backed by the Russian military have waged war against Ukraine since 2014. The meeting ended abruptly, with Putin saying he would reach a decision by late Monday on whether to recognize the separatist regions’ independence.

During the meeting, which was broadcast on Russian state television, senior Russian officials and the heads of the country’s intelligence agencies took turns at a podium to present their summaries on the situation in the Donbass, in which they falsely accused Ukraine of perpetrating a genocide in the region and of not meeting its obligations under the Minsk agreement. Officials and members of parliament defended the proposed recognition by claiming that Moscow needed to protect ethnic Russians in the separatist provinces. Blaming Kyiv for fomenting a humanitarian disaster in the region, one Russian politician, Valentina Matviyenko, accused the Ukrainian government of “genocide,” a baseless charge that U.S. officials previously warned Russia might use as a pretext for invasion.

Russia appears poised to recognize Ukraine’s breakaway regions in the eastern province of Donbass following a highly choreographed televised meeting of the country’s Security Council, chaired by Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday.

Western officials have warned that recognition of the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics would spell the end of the Minsk accords, a 2015 peace deal that sought to resolve the conflict in the Donbass, where separatists backed by the Russian military have waged war against Ukraine since 2014. The meeting ended abruptly, with Putin saying he would reach a decision by late Monday on whether to recognize the separatist regionsindependence.

During the meeting, which was broadcast on Russian state television, senior Russian officials and the heads of the country’s intelligence agencies took turns at a podium to present their summaries on the situation in the Donbass, in which they falsely accused Ukraine of perpetrating a genocide in the region and of not meeting its obligations under the Minsk agreement. Officials and members of parliament defended the proposed recognition by claiming that Moscow needed to protect ethnic Russians in the separatist provinces. Blaming Kyiv for fomenting a humanitarian disaster in the region, one Russian politician, Valentina Matviyenko, accused the Ukrainian government of “genocide,” a baseless charge that U.S. officials previously warned Russia might use as a pretext for invasion.

In a particularly remarkable exchange, Sergei Naryshkin, the head of Russia’s foreign intelligence service, who appeared visibly nervous, said he recommended annexing the two breakaway regions, until Putin interrupted. “We’re not discussing that,” Putin said. “We’re discussing recognition of their independence or not.”

The meeting of Russia’s Security Council came as the leaders of the separatist republics appealed to Moscow to recognize their independence. Last week, Russian lawmakers approved a resolution requesting Russia recognize the two breakaway regions. Putin had initially appeared to downplay the request and said implementation of the Minsk agreement presented the best way to resolve the conflict in eastern Ukraine.

Monday’s Security Council meeting came just 24 hours after Anatoly Antonov, the Russian ambassador to the United States, told CBS that Moscow had explicitly ruled out recognizing the separatist republics. The Russian stock market shuddered at the more hawkish turn, with the Moscow Exchange falling 10.5 percent.

On Sunday, the White House said U.S. President Joe Biden agreed “in principle” to meet with his Russian counterpart following a meeting between Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken later this week. The potential summit was hammered out after a day of marathon phone diplomacy led by French President Emmanuel Macron on Sunday. U.S. officials have said both meetings are contingent on Russia not invading Ukraine.

But with Russia continuing to amass troops just miles from the Ukrainian border and with pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine falsely accusing Ukrainian troops of threatening to invade, the Kremlin appeared to brush off the option of a summit on Monday, instead calling the snap Security Council meeting. Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said there were “no concrete plans” for a summit between the two presidents.

U.S. officials estimate the Kremlin has amassed around 190,000 troops near Ukraine’s border, including tens of thousands that took part in massive military exercises with neighboring Belarus. Those exercises were scheduled to end on Feb. 20, but the Belarusian government announced it would continue hosting Russian troops for an indeterminate period of time.

The forecast from both U.S. and Russian officials has continued to darken. On Monday, Nikolai Patrushev, the head of Russia’s Security Council, said Russia could give the United States a multiday ultimatum to end the conflict before holding talks with Biden, but since the White House is unlikely to accept, the only solution would be recognition of the pro-Russian separatist provinces. Following the meeting, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said he had asked the United Nations Security Council to start consultations to de-escalate tensions and secure Ukraine. (Russia and China both have vetoes on the U.N. council.) Kuleba also called for immediate European Union sanctions against Russia.

Late last week, Biden said he believed Putin had made the decision to invade based on U.S. intelligence assessments. But he left open room for diplomacy up to the point of an actual incursion.

“Every indication we see on the ground right now in terms of the disposition of Russian forces is they are getting prepared for a major attack on Ukraine,” U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said on NBC on Monday. “We have seen just in the last 24 hours further moves of Russian units to the border, with no other good explanation than they’re getting into position to attack.”

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

Jack Detsch is a Pentagon and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @JackDetsch

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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