MOSCOW — President Vladimir Putin of Russia on Monday ordered troops into separatist-held eastern Ukraine and hinted at the possibility of a wider military campaign, delivering an emotional and aggrieved address to his nation that laid claim to all of Ukraine as a country “created by Russia.”
After the speech, state television showed Putin at the Kremlin signing decrees recognizing the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics, which were formed after Russia fomented a separatist war in eastern Ukraine in 2014. The decrees, published by the Kremlin, directed the Russian Defense Ministry to deploy troops in those regions to carry out “peacekeeping functions.”
The action by Putin, who has commandeered the world’s attention with an enormous deployment of troops along Ukraine’s border in recent weeks, was the most blatant yet in a confrontation that Western officials warn could escalate into the biggest armed conflict in Europe since World War II.
It was a momentous decision for Putin, a reversal of his 8-year-old strategy to use the separatist enclaves the Kremlin backed with arms and money as a means of pressuring Ukraine’s government without recognizing them outright as independent from Ukraine itself.
But he continued to keep the world guessing about his next steps, signaling in his hourlong speech that his goals extended beyond the enclaves. He laid out such a broad case against Ukraine — describing its pro-Western government as a dire threat to Russia and to Russians — that he appeared to lay the groundwork for action against the rest of the country.
He even went so far as to describe Ukraine’s elected pro-Western leaders as stooges and cast them as the aggressors — even though Russia has 190,000 troops, including allied separatist fighters, surrounding Ukraine.
“As for those who captured and are holding onto power in Kyiv, we demand that they immediately cease military action,” Putin said at the end of his speech, referring to Ukraine’s capital. “If not, the complete responsibility for the possibility of a continuation of bloodshed will be fully and wholly on the conscience of the regime ruling the territory of Ukraine.”
It was a thinly veiled threat against the government of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, which denies that it is responsible for the escalating shelling on the front line between Ukrainian forces and Russian-backed separatists in recent days. Russian state television has broadcast extensive reports claiming, without evidence, that Ukraine is preparing an offensive against the separatist territories.
After the speech, Zelenskyy spoke to President Joe Biden and called a meeting of his Security and Defense Council, and later said Ukraine is “not afraid of anyone or anything.” The council’s secretary, Oleksiy Danilov, urged nervous Ukrainians not to trust rumors.
“A great powerful information provocation is being waged against our state,” Danilov said. “But it is necessary to trust only official information.”
The White House said Biden would impose sanctions against people doing business in the separatist regions, and that it would “soon announce additional measures related to today’s blatant violation of Russia’s international commitments.”
The leaders of the European Union condemned the recognition “in the strongest possible terms,” and a spokesperson for the secretary-general of the United Nations said the move was “inconsistent with the principles” of the U.N. charter.
“This is clearly a unilateral violation of Russia’s international commitments and an attack on the sovereignty of Ukraine,” said a statement from President Emmanuel Macron of France, who spoke to Putin at 1 a.m. Moscow time on Monday in a frantic bout of diplomacy aimed at resolving the crisis.
The United States and allied nations denounced Russia on Monday at an emergency U.N. Security Council meeting over the Ukraine crisis, calling Moscow’s recognition of the two separatist regions and the deployment of Russian troops to them a blunt defiance of international law that risks war.
The unusual late-evening meeting, requested by Ukraine, quickly turned into a diplomatic rebuke of Russia.
“Russia’s clear attack on Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity is unprovoked,” Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the American U.N. ambassador, said. Ridiculing Putin’s assertion that Russian forces had been deployed as peacekeepers, she said: “This is nonsense. We know what they really are.”
Putin’s recognition of the territories represents a sharp departure from how the Kremlin has approached Ukraine over the last eight years. After establishing the breakaway republics in 2014, the Kremlin decided not to recognize their independence even as it quietly backed them militarily and offered Russian citizenship to their residents.
The strategy, analysts said, was to use the unresolved conflict as a pressure point on Kyiv, which signed peace accords in Minsk, Belarus, in 2015 that required Ukraine to grant a special status to the eastern regions. The accords were never carried out, with their interpretation varying widely in Kyiv and Moscow, and Putin said Monday that Ukraine had made clear “it planned to do nothing” to implement them.
“How long can this tragedy continue?” Putin asked, repeating his false claims that Ukraine was waging a “genocide” against Russian speakers in the region. “How long can we continue to bear this?”
Putin’s speech began with an extensive recitation of his historical grievances, starting with claims that Ukraine owes its statehood to the Soviet Union: “Modern-day Ukraine was in full and in whole created by Russia — Bolshevik, communist Russia to be precise.”
They were arguments that Putin had made before, but he laid them out in his nationally televised address Monday evening with an intensity and, at times, anger that the president had rarely displayed in his 21 years in power.
“You want de-communization?” Putin went on, referring to Ukraine’s efforts to take down Lenin statues and other symbols of the communist past. “We are ready to show you what real de-communization would mean for Ukraine.”
Not only was Ukraine rejecting its shared past with Russia, Putin went on, but it was enabling American ambitions to weaken Russia by aspiring to membership in the NATO alliance. He repeated his previous statements that the United States had the ability to base missiles in Ukraine that could hit Moscow within minutes; Biden denies such plans. Putin even claimed that Ukraine could develop nuclear weapons, raising the specter of “weapons of mass destruction” in the neighboring country.
“Why was it necessary to make an enemy out of us?” Putin said, repeating his long-held grievances about NATO’s eastward expansion. “They didn’t want such a large, independent country as Russia. In this lies the answer to all questions.”
Beyond Putin’s intensive history lesson — which would be disputed by many Ukrainians, who see themselves as a separate country with their own identity — the Russian president said little about his next steps. For instance, he did not address that the separatist “people’s republics” are claiming about three times as much territory as they currently control.
Some analysts have speculated that Putin could use Russian troops to capture more Ukrainian territory on behalf of those republics. But his threat against Kyiv at the end of his speech signaled he was prepared to take the fight to Zelenskyy’s government directly. U.S. officials have said such an outcome is possible given the size of Putin’s troop buildup to Ukraine’s north, east and south, estimated to be between 150,000 and 190,000 soldiers.
The recognition of the separatist statelets was reminiscent of a similar tactic Russia used in Georgia, which like Ukraine, was promised NATO membership in 2008 but without a fixed schedule. Breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia enticed Georgia to fight to restore its territory in 2008, and the regions beat back the Georgians with the aid of Russian troops. They declared independence and were recognized by Russia, which keeps troops in both statelets.
Putin’s Ukraine speech came after a carefully choreographed day of mounting drama over the fate of the country and its 44 million people. Russian state television offered extensive reports of Ukrainian shelling against civilian targets in the separatist regions, which Ukraine denied. The Russian military claimed it had killed five Ukrainian “saboteurs” who trespassed onto Russian territory.
“I emphasize once again that the Ukrainian army is not planning any offensive actions,” Ukraine’s defense minister, Oleksiy Reznikov, said in a news conference in Kyiv. “Nowhere. We stand for the return of our people and territories through political and diplomatic means.”
But Ukraine’s assurances appeared to be ignored in Moscow. Russian television broadcast videotaped appeals from the two leaders of the separatist republics pleading with Putin to recognize their enclaves’ independence.
The Kremlin then released more than an hour of footage of a special meeting of Putin’s Security Council, at which senior officials took turns explaining why the president should recognize the republics’ independence. Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin told Putin that the Finance Ministry and Central Bank were ready to manage the impact of any Western sanctions.
“These risks have been worked through rather well,” Mishustin said.
Some officials told Putin that he should go further, raising the possibility that the Kremlin was considering more extensive action. Speaking last, Viktor Zolotov, Putin’s former bodyguard and the head of Russia’s National Guard, hinted that the Kremlin needed control of more than just Ukraine’s eastern regions to eliminate what it considers the threat posed by the country’s pro-Western shift.
“We don’t have a border with Ukraine — we have a border with America, because they are the masters in that country,” Zolotov said. “Of course we must recognize the republics, but I want to say that we must go farther in order to defend our country.”
“A decision will be made today,” Putin said at the end of that meeting, keeping his nation and the world in suspense until his televised speech hours later.