(Update 3: Changes headline, dateline, re-ledes, updates throughout)
Moscow/Berlin/Washington Feb 21 (EFE).- Russian President Vladimir Putin has ordered the deployment of troops to maintain peace in two breakaway territories of eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region that Moscow recognized on Monday.
A pair of decrees Putin signed on Tuesday state that Russian soldiers will carry out “peacekeeping functions” in the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic.
Earlier Monday, Putin recognized the independence of Donetsk and Lugansk, making that decision in response to requests to that effect from their respective leaders and after Russia’s lower house passed a resolution last week urging him take that step.
Putin signed his executive orders after a long televised address to the nation.
“I deem it necessary to make a decision that should have been made a long time ago and to immediately recognize the independence and sovereignty of the Donetsk People’s Republic and the Luhansk People’s Republic,” Putin said at the end of his speech, which was filled with criticisms of the West and references to the history of that part of the world.
“I would like to emphasize again that Ukraine is not just a neighboring country for us. It is an inalienable part of our own history, culture and spiritual space. These are our comrades, those dearest to us – not only colleagues, friends and people who once served together, but also relatives, people bound by blood, by family ties,” the Russian leader said.
He said negotiations with Western countries on resolving the Ukraine crisis have hit a “dead end” and that the situation in the Donbas region – where since 2014 Russia-backed separatists have battled Ukrainian government forces, a conflict that has claimed around 14,000 lives – “has reached a critical, acute stage.”
Each side in that conflict accuses the other of targeting civilians and of using armament prohibited under the Minsk Accords that established a cease-fire and were meant to provide the basis for a permanent settlement.
Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) monitors on Monday reported more than 3,000 cease-fire violations over the weekend in eastern Ukraine, where Ukrainian and rebel-held territory is separated by a demarcation line.
The Russian president also issued a stark warning to Ukraine’s government.
“As for those who seized and hold power in Kiev, we demand an immediate end to their military operations” against Donetsk and Luhansk,” Putin said. “Otherwise, all responsibility for the possible continuation of bloodshed will be fully on the conscience of the regime in power in Ukraine.”
The United States and Western Europe say they fear that Russia’s recognition of Donetsk and Luhansk, which have received political, financial and logistical support from the Kremlin since 2014, will serve as a pretext for Moscow to attack parts of the Donbas that lie outside the separatists’ control or even to carry out a full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
Russia is currently deploying between 150,000 and 190,000 troops, according to Kiev and Washington, on the Ukrainian border, including some 30,000 troops in Belarus, a close ally of Russia’s that borders Ukraine to the north.
Moscow, which wants a commitment by the US-led North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to pull troops from former Soviet republics in Eastern Europe and assurances that Ukraine will never be admitted to the alliance (demands rejected by the US and its allies), has repeatedly denied it intends to invade Ukraine despite its massive troop build-up.
Western countries swiftly denounced Russia’s move.
Germany, France and the US agreed to respond in a coordinated manner to the Kremlin’s action, German government spokesman Steffen Hebestreit said after a conversation Monday involving Chancellor Olaf Scholz, French President Emmanuel Macron and US head of state Joe Biden.
In a statement, the spokesman said those three leaders agree that Putin’s decision is a clear violation of the Minsk Accords and they unreservedly condemn it and express their full solidarity with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
The government in Kiev, for its part, announced that it continues to regard Donetsk and Luhansk, including the area controlled by pro-Russian separatists, part of Ukrainian territory.
Zelenskyy instructed his foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, to request an urgent meeting of the UN Security Council to examine ways to de-escalate the situation and guarantee Ukraine’s security.