Russia has recognized 2 breakaway regions of Ukraine. Here's why that matters
Move could have wider implications for crisis, with Russia poised to invade Ukraine
Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday recognized the independence of Moscow-backed rebel regions Donetsk and Luhansk in Eastern Ukraine, a move that will further fuel tensions with the West amid fears of a Russian invasion.
Putin's move follows days of heightened tensions in Ukraine's eastern industrial heartland, where Ukrainian forces are locked in an eight-year conflict with Russia-backed separatists that has left more than 14,000 people dead.
Here is a look at those two rebel-controlled territories.
What are these two regions?
Russian-backed separatists in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions — collectively known as the Donbas — broke away from Ukrainian government control in 2014 and proclaimed themselves independent "people's republics," until now unrecognized.
Since then, Ukraine says about 15,000 people have been killed in fighting.
Russia denies being a party to the conflict but has backed the separatists in numerous ways — including through covert military support, financial aid, supplies of COVID-19 vaccines and issuing at least 800,000 Russian passports to residents.
Moscow has always denied it is planning to invade Ukraine. However, recognition of the rebel regions came as more than 150,000 Russian troops have surrounded Ukraine from three sides in what the United States and its allies saw as a sign of an imminent invasion.
Shortly after recognizing the regions, Putin ordered his Defence Ministry to send Russian peacekeepers to the two regions.
What could Putin's recognition lead to?
For the first time, Russia is saying it does not regard the Donbas as part of Ukraine. That could pave the way for Moscow to send military forces into the separatist regions openly, using the argument that it is intervening as an ally to protect them against Ukraine.
A Russian parliament member and former Donetsk political leader, Alexander Borodai, told Reuters last month that the separatists would then look to Russia to help them wrest control of parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions still under the control of Ukrainian forces. If that happened, it could lead to open military conflict between Russia and Ukraine.
What about the Minsk peace agreement?
Putin's move on Monday effectively kills the 2014-15 Minsk Protocol, a peace agreement that, although still unimplemented, has until now been seen by all sides, including Moscow, as the best chance for a solution. The accord calls for a large degree of autonomy for the two regions inside Ukraine.
His move will also further fuel tensions with the West. Putin said that Moscow would sign friendship treaties with the rebel territories, a move that could pave the way for Russia to openly support them with troops and weapons.
The development follows several days of shelling that erupted along the line of contact in Donetsk and Luhansk. Ukraine and the West accused Moscow of fomenting the tensions to create a pretext for an invasion.
Russia, in turn, accused Ukraine of trying to reclaim the rebel-held territories by force, a claim that Kyiv strongly rejected.
How is the West responding?
The White House says U.S. President Joe Biden is ordering new sanctions after Russia moved to recognize the separatist Eastern Ukraine regions.
The sanctions will prohibit new investment, trade and financing in the two regions.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau condemned Putin's move, calling it "a blatant violation of Ukraine's sovereignty and international law," and promising sanctions.
Canada strongly condemns Russia’s recognition of so-called “independent states” in Ukraine. This is a blatant violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and international law. Canada stands strong in its support for Ukraine – and we will impose economic sanctions for these actions.—@JustinTrudeau
The European Union's top officials said the bloc will also impose sanctions against those involved in Russia's recognition of the two separatist regions.
Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, and European Council president Charles Michel said 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 recognized borders."
Has Russia done this kind of thing before?
Yes. It recognized the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, two Georgian breakaway regions, after fighting a short war with Georgia in 2008.
It has provided them with extensive budget support, extended Russian citizenship to their populations and stationed thousands of troops there.
In the Georgia case, Russia used recognition of the breakaway regions to justify an open-ended military presence in a neighbouring former Soviet republic in an attempt to indefinitely thwart Georgia's NATO aspirations by denying it full control of its own territory.
The same considerations would apply to Ukraine.
With files from The Associated Press