A Ukrainian serviceman fires an anti-tank weapon in Donetsk (file photo) VADIM GHIRDA/PA Images

What does Russia's recognition of two eastern Ukrainian territories mean?

Vladimir Putin this evening recognised the independence of the two regions.

RUSSIAN PRESIDENT VLADIMIR Putin tonight recognised the independence of two separatist regions in eastern Ukraine in a move that will severely ratchet up tensions with the West.

The decision has raised fears that Moscow could invade Ukraine at any moment and use skirmishes as a pretext for an attack.

Putin has already ordered Russia’s military to act as “peacekeepers” in the two breakaway regions.

“I believe it is necessary to take a long-overdue decision, to immediately recognise the independence and sovereignty of the Donetsk People’s Republic and the Luhansk People’s Republic,” he said this evening, before signing decrees recognising the regions’ independence.

But what does Putin’s recognition of Donetsk and Luhansk mean, and why might it be a precursor for a Russian invasion of Ukraine?

What are the Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics?

Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics – collectively known as the Donbass region – declared independence from Kyiv in April 2014 after Kremlin-backed rebels seized government buildings in the regions following Russia’s annexation of Crimea. 

Sitting on Ukraine’s border with Russia, on the northern banks of the Black Sea, the regions are home to around 3.5 million people and have been largely reliant on the Kremlin for financial, humanitarian and military assistance.

Russia has consistently denied any involvement in the conflict, but has worked to secure its hold on the regions by handing out more than 720,000 Russian passports to roughly one-fifth of their population and has provided economic and financial assistance to the separatist territories.

What does Moscow’s recognition of them mean?

For the first time, Russia has declared that it does not regard the Donbass as part of Ukraine.

This could allow Moscow to send military forces into the separatist regions openly under the guise that it is intervening as an ally to protect them against Ukraine.

That would likely increase the risk of a full-blown conflict between Moscow and Kyiv on the Ukrainian border, where hundreds of thousands of Russian troops are already massed. 

The move effectively brings an end to the efforts to resolve the conflict in the regions, laid down in the 2015 Minsk agreements.

The agreement envisaged a new cease-fire, a pullback of heavy weapons and a series of moves toward a political settlement, but Kyiv and the separatists have each accused the other of breaches.

A series of ceasefires have fallen through due to repeated violations by belligerents.

The political strand of the accords, which foresees a large degree of autonomy for the rebel regions and local elections under Ukrainian law, remains a dead letter, with each side blaming the other for the failure.

Has this happened before?

Yes. Russia invaded Georgia in 2008 after it recognised the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, two Georgian breakaway regions, and accused Georgia of attacking them.

It allowed them to expand thousands of troops to the country while also extending Russian citizenship to their populations. 

How will the West respond?

Western leaders have already condemned the move and said that they will be imposing sanctions on Russia. 

The US announced financial sanctions against the regions and warned that more were ready if necessary. The sanctions will prohibit new investment, trade and financing in the two separatist regions.

Elsewhere, the European Union’s top officials said the bloc will impose sanctions against those involved in Russia’s recognition of the two separatist regions.

EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Council President Charles Michel say in a joint statement that the recognition is “a blatant violation of international law”.

The statement adds that the bloc “will react with sanctions” and “reiterates its unwavering support to Ukraine’s independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity within its internationally recognised borders”.

What happens now?

Putin’s recognition of the rebel-held territories’ independence effectively shatters the Minsk peace agreements and suggests he is no longer interested in diplomatic efforts to avoid further conflict in Ukraine. 

It is likely to further fuel tensions with the West, with sanctions imminent and talks expected to discuss what else the US and the EU will do in response. 

Putin also said that Moscow would sign friendship treaties with the regions, a move that could pave the way for Russia to openly support them with troops and weapons. 

In two official decrees, Putin also instructed the defence ministry to assume “the function of peacekeeping” in Donetsk and Luhansk.

In the same document, Putin also ordered his foreign ministry to “establish diplomatic relations” with the “republics”.

With reporting from the Press Association and © AFP 2022.

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