Putin recognizes separatists in Ukraine; U.S., EU respond with sanctions

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Feb. 21 (UPI) — Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday signed decrees recognizing two separatist regions in eastern Ukraine as independent republics, triggering vows of sanctions from the United States and European allies.

Following an address to the Russian people Monday evening in which he said the situation in Ukraine’s Donbas region “is critical again,” official television showed Putin signing a pair of decrees recognizing the Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics, also known as the DNR and LNR.

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The move came after European leaders urged him 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 will soon issue an executive order that will “prohibit new investment, trade and financing by U.S. persons to, from, or in the so-called DNR and LNR regions of Ukraine,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said.

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The order “will also provide authority to impose sanctions on any person determined to operate in those areas of Ukraine,” she said, adding that the administration will soon announce additional measures related to “today’s blatant violation of Russia’s international commitments.”

The sanctions would be 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,” Psaki 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.”

Before signing the decrees, Putin declared that “modern Ukraine was entirely created by Russia” and that the country “is not just a neighbor for us. It is inseparable part of our own history, culture, spiritual space.”

He repeated claims that the Ukrainian government is fomenting bloodshed in the region, CNN reported.

Kiev has denied Russian reports of shelling in Donbas as fabricated.

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“I categorically refute Russian disinformation,” Ukraine Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba wrote on Twitter Monday. “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.”

Putin earlier told French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in a phone conversation that he intended to sign the decree, according to the Interfax and RIA Novosti news agencies.

In speaking with Macron and Scholz, Putin used the claim of “military aggression of the Ukrainian authorities” and “massive shelling of the territory of Donbas” to justify the decrees.

A spokesman for Scholz condemned the move, calling it a “stark contradiction to the Minsk Agreements for the peaceful settlement of the conflict in eastern Ukraine,” ABC News reported.

“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,” EU 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.”

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Biden met with his national security team at the White House Monday and is being “regularly briefed on developments regarding Russia and Ukraine,” a spokesman said.

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, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.

“The purpose of today’s meeting is to listen to colleagues and to determine our further steps in this direction, including the appeal from the leaders of the Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic to Russia seeking recognition of their sovereignty,” Putin said, according to CNN.

Putin also 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.

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“At the end of last year, we stepped up our efforts with our main partners in Washington and NATO to finally agree security measures and to ensure the peaceful development of our country. This is our priority, not a confrontation,” he said.

Earlier Monday, Peskov said that reports about a new round of talks between Putin and Biden on the Ukraine crisis were “premature.”

For months, Moscow has been building up troops near its border with Ukraine and has sought assurances from the West on certain security issues, including Ukraine’s aspiration to join NATO, which Russia opposes.

Peskov’s remarks came after 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.

“It’s premature to talk about any specific plans for organizing any kind of summits,” Peskov said, according to The Moscow Times.

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.

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U.S. Secretary of State Antony 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, Peskov strongly denied the existence of such a letter.