Putin Weighs Recognition of Two Ukrainian Enclaves as Independent States


KHARKIV, Ukraine — Russian President Vladimir Putin called together his top security officials Monday to discuss whether to recognize the independence of two eastern Ukrainian enclaves under the control of Russian-backed separatists — a move that would further inflame tensions already close to a breaking point.

The pro-Moscow leaders of Donetsk and Luhansk appealed to Putin ahead of the meeting to recognize their enclaves as independent republics and requested Russian military assistance in their fight against Ukrainian forces. Putin said the objective of his conference with his security council was to “listen to colleagues and decide on our next steps in this area.”

The Russian leader has previously accused the Ukrainian government of pursuing “genocide” in Donetsk and Luhansk, the vast majority of whose populations are ethnic Russians. The U.S. and NATO have accused Moscow of planning so-called false flag operations in the area to justify an all-out invasion of Ukraine.

On Monday, Russia’s military said it killed five saboteurs crossing into its territory from Ukraine and destroyed two Ukrainian army combat vehicles. But the Ukrainian military dismissed those claims, which were reported by Russian state news agencies, as “completely fake.”

Since 2014, fighting between Kyiv’s forces and the Russia-backed secessionists in Donetsk and Luhansk, which make up Ukraine’s Donbas region, has killed more than 14,000 people. A cease-fire has been breached multiple times by both sides. In recent weeks, as Russian troops massed near Ukraine’s borders, Russian-aligned media and digital actors have churned out constant stories of Ukrainian atrocities against ethnic Russians as part of a disinformation campaign to paint the government in Kyiv as a cabal of violent far-right nationalists.

The separatists have declared their enclaves to be independent republics, but the breakaway regions have remained unrecognized up to now, even by Russia.

In the U.S., White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan said on NBC’s “Today” show Monday that a Russian invasion of Ukraine would be “extremely violent” and appeared to be days, if not hours, away. The Biden administration has insisted for several days that a Russian assault was imminent.

“This will not simply be some conventional war between two armies. It will be a war waged by Russia on the Ukrainian people to repress them, to crush them, to harm them,” Sullivan said. “We believe the world must mobilize to counter this kind of Russian aggression should those tanks roll across the border.”

Sullivan said President Joe Biden remained open to a summit with Putin — which French President Emmanuel Macron has tried to broker — but downplayed the likelihood that one would occur. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken is scheduled to meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Thursday — as long as there has been no invasion of Ukraine, the U.S. says.

“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,” Sullivan said. “We will go the extra mile on diplomacy, but we are also prepared with our allies and partners to respond decisively if Russia attacks.”

Russia has massed more than 150,000 troops and a land, air and sea arsenal on Ukraine’s borders. Moscow denies it has any plans for an invasion but has warned that Western failure to engage with its security demands, including a pledge never to allow Ukraine to join NATO, would trigger a “military-technical response.” The Kremlin has not elaborated on what that would mean.

The Russian army’s Southern Military District — which operates in areas neighboring Ukraine — said Monday that troops and border guards had prevented an incursion of what it called a “sabotage and reconnaissance group” coming in from Ukraine into Russian territory.

“Five violators of the Russian Federation’s border from a sabotage and reconnaissance group were eliminated in an armed clash,” said a statement from the army, according to the Russian news agency Interfax. The statement said the incursion occurred around 6 a.m. near Mityakinskaya, a Russian border village about 22 miles east of the city of Luhansk.

During the clash, a pair of Ukrainian army vehicles entered Russian territory but were destroyed by Russian military units using anti-tank systems, the statement said, adding: “No Russian Armed Forces and Federal Security Service members have been hurt.”

A spokesman for the Ukrainian military’s Joint Forces Operation rejected the Russian allegations, saying that “all information about a possible incursion by a reconnaissance group is false. We haven’t done any assault operations. It’s completely fake.”

In Moscow, the deputy chairman of the security council, Dmitry Medvedev, told Putin that if Russia went ahead and recognized Donetsk and Luhansk as independent republics, it would face “unprecedented pressure” internationally but that there was no choice. He said Russia’s previous recognition of the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia had been a lesson to the West that Russia could not be ignored, according to a translation of Medvedev’s comments by the Al-Jazeera news channel.

Putin said the use of Ukraine “as an instrument of confrontation with our country poses a serious, very big threat to us.” Moscow’s priority, he said, was “not confrontation, but security.”

Times staff writers Erin B. Logan in Washington and Henry Chu in London contributed to this report.