Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a decree on Monday recognizing two breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine as independent.
The implications of the broader crisis are discussed below, in which, according to the United States, Russia may be ready to invade Ukraine with a force of up to 190,000 troops that it has concentrated near its neighbor’s borders.
What are breakaway regions?
Russian-backed separatists in the Donets and Luhansk regions – known collectively as the Donbas – broke away from Ukrainian government control in 2014 and proclaimed themselves independent, hitherto unrecognized “people’s republics.”
Since then, Ukraine claims some 15,000 people have been killed in the fighting. Russia denies being a party to the conflict but has backed the separatists in numerous ways, including through covert military support, financial aid, supplying COVID-19 vaccines and issuing at least 800,000 Russian passports to residents. Moscow has always denied that it plans to invade Ukraine.
What does Russian recognition mean?
For the first time, Russia says it does not consider the Donbas as part of Ukraine. That could pave the way for Moscow to openly send military forces into breakaway regions, using the argument that it is intervening as an ally to protect them against Ukraine.
A Russian parliament member and former political leader of the Donets, Alexander Borodai, said last month that the separatists would then look to Russia for help in gaining control of the parts of the Donets and Luhansk regions that are still under their control. control of the Ukrainian forces. If that happens, it could lead to an open military conflict between Russia and Ukraine.
What about the Minsk peace process?
Russian recognition effectively ends the 2014-2015 Minsk peace accords which, although not yet implemented, have so far been considered by all parties, including Moscow, as the best path to a solution. The agreements call for a large degree of autonomy for the two regions within Ukraine.
How will the West respond?
Western governments have been warning Moscow for months that any movement of military forces across the Ukrainian border would provoke a forceful response, including tough financial sanctions.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken stated last week that recognition would “further undermine Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, constitute a serious violation of international law, and further call into question Russia’s stated commitment to continue to engage in diplomacy to achieve a peaceful resolution of this crisis.”
Blinken said a “swift and firm” response from the United States and its allies would be necessary.
Has Russia recognized breakaway states before?
Yes. It recognized the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, two breakaway Georgian regions, after waging a brief 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.
What are the pros and cons for Moscow?
In the case of Georgia, Russia used recognition of the breakaway regions to justify an indefinite military presence in a neighboring 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.
On the negative side, Moscow faces sanctions and international condemnation for abandoning the Minsk process after long maintaining that it was committed to it. It will also have to bear indefinitely the responsibility of two territories ravaged by eight years of war and in need of enormous economic support.
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