The Russian President, Vladimir Putinrecognized on Monday the independence of the pro-Russian rebel regions in the east of Ukrainea move that will further fuel tensions with the West amid fears of an invasion russian.
Putin’s decision comes after days of tension in the industrial heartland of eastern Ukraine, where Ukrainian troops have been locked in a conflict with Russian-backed separatists for nearly eight years that has left more than 14,000 dead.
Here’s a look at the rebel-held territories in eastern Ukraine:
The Eastern Separatist Rebellion
When the pro-Moscow Ukrainian president was ousted over mass protests in February 2014, Russia responded by annexing Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula. He then supported the insurgency in Ukraine’s mostly Russian-speaking eastern region, known as Donbas.
In April 2014, Russian-backed rebels seized government buildings in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, proclaimed the creation of “people’s republics” and clashed with Ukrainian troops and volunteer battalions.
A month later, the breakaway regions held a popular vote to declare their independence and tried to become part of Russia. Moscow has not accepted the motion, it has only used the regions as a tool to keep Ukraine in its sphere and prevent it from joining NATO.
Both Ukraine and the West accused Russia of backing the rebels with troops and weapons. Moscow has denied this, claiming that the Russians who fought there were volunteers.
As fierce battles raged with tanks, heavy artillery and warplanes, Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was shot down over eastern Ukraine on July 17, 2014, killing all 298 people on board. An international investigation concluded that the passenger plane was shot down by a Russian-supplied missile fired from rebel-held territory in Ukraine. Moscow continues to deny its involvement.
Peace agreements for eastern Ukraine
Following a heavy defeat by Ukrainian troops in August 2014, envoys from Kiev, the rebels and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) signed a truce in Minsk, the capital of Belarus, in September 2014.
This document contemplated the ceasefire observed by the OSCE, the withdrawal of all foreign fighters, the exchange of prisoners and hostages, an amnesty for the rebels and the promise that the separatist regions could have a certain degree of self-government.
However, the agreement soon fell apart and large-scale fighting broke out again, leading to another major defeat for Ukrainian forces at Debaltseve in January and February 2015.
France and Germany brokered a new peace agreement, signed in Minsk in February 2015 by representatives of Ukraine, Russia and the rebels. It provided for a new ceasefire, the withdrawal of heavy weapons and a series of measures to reach a political agreement. The leaders of Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany signed a declaration of support for the agreement.
A frozen conflict in Ukraine
The 2015 peace deal was a major diplomatic achievement for the Kremlin, as it forced Ukraine to grant special status to breakaway regions, allowing them to create their own police force and have a say in the appointment of local prosecutors and judges.
It also foresaw that Ukraine would only be able to regain control of the roughly 200-kilometre (125-mile) border with Russia in the rebel regions after the latter gained self-government and held OSCE-supervised local elections, votes that would almost certainly keep Russia in check. power to the pro-Russian rebels.
Many Ukrainians see it as a betrayal of national interests, so its implementation has stalled. The Minsk document helped end the large-scale fighting, but the situation has remained tense and clashes have continued regularly.
With the Minsk deal stalled, Moscow’s hope of using the rebel regions to influence Ukrainian politics directly failed, but the frozen conflict depleted Kiev’s resources and hampered its goal of joining NATO, which is set in the Ukrainian constitution.
Moscow also tried to secure its control over the rebellious regions by issuing more than 720,000 Russian passports to a fifth of its 3.6 million inhabitants.
In addition, it provided economic and financial assistance to the separatist territories, but the aid has been insufficient to alleviate the enormous damage caused by the fighting and prop up the economy. The Donbas region accounted for about 16% of Ukraine’s GDP before the conflict.
The effort to revive the peace agreement
Amid rising tensions over the buildup of Russian troops near Ukraine, France and Germany have redoubled efforts to encourage compliance with the 2015 deal, hoping it could help defuse the ongoing standoff.
The Ukrainian authorities, faced with requests from Berlin and Paris for it to be applied, have reinforced their criticism of the Minsk agreement and have warned that it could lead to the disappearance of the country. The two rounds of talks held in Paris and Berlin between the presidential envoys of Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany have been futile.
Putin recognizes the independence of the separatist regions
By recognizing the independence of pro-Russian rebel territories, Putin is shattering the Minsk peace accords and fueling tensions with the West.
The Russian president declared 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.
This decision comes after several days of fighting along the front line in Donetsk and Luhansk. Ukraine and the West have accused Moscow of fomenting tensions to create a pretext for an invasion. Russia, for its part, accused Ukraine of trying to forcibly retake the territories that are in the hands of the rebels, an assertion that Kiev strongly rejected.
On Friday, separatist leaders released video statements announcing the evacuation of civilians in the face of what they described as Ukrainian “aggression.” The data collected from the videos indicated that his statements had been recorded two days earlier, when the situation was still relatively calm, indicating a deliberate plan to try to separate the regions of Ukraine.
On Monday, leaders of the rogue regions released new video statements calling on Putin to recognize the independence of their regions, and the Russian leader quickly responded by calling a carefully orchestrated meeting of his Security Council and then signing the decrees of recognition in a televised ceremony.
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