RFE/RL – Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (Autor)
Russia’s upper house of parliament has voted unanimously on February 22 to grant President Vladimir Putin's request to use military force outside the country, a move further inflaming a crisis with Western countries over Ukraine.
The vote came after Putin sent a letter to the Federation Council asking to formalize a military deployment to regions in eastern Ukraine that Russia-backed separatists claim to control a day after the Russian president had recognized their independence.
Putin later laid out conditions to end the crisis that has threatened to plunge Europe into war. These include Ukraine renouncing its ambition to join NATO and Western nations halting shipments to the country.
Speaking at a news conference, he also said a Ukraine peace agreement known as the Minsk accord aimed at ending the conflict in eastern Ukraine "does not exist" anymore and blamed Kyiv for killing it off.
The events came a day after Putin ignored Western warnings and said he would recognize the independence bids of Moscow-backed separatists who control parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions in eastern Ukraine.
Putin also said he would send troops to the regions to protect civilians from attack.
The executive orders that Putin issued on February 21 did not specify exactly what Moscow has recognized, but the Russian president said during his February 22 news conference that Russia recognizes the independence of Ukraine's separatist regions, including territory now controlled by Kyiv.
"We recognize them which means all their founding documents and constitutions, which say that their borders coincide with Luhansk and Donetsk regions at the time they were still part of Ukraine," Putin said.
The Ukrainian military currently controls of about two-thirds of the territory on its side of a line of contact, including the important port of Mariupol on the Sea of Azov. The separatists hold the other third, including the two provincial capitals, Donetsk and Luhansk.
Russia still hopes the issues can be resolved through peaceful negotiations, Putin told the news conference, but added that "for the time being it is out of the question because combat activities are going on there and the situation is deteriorating.”
The European Union and the United States reacted by announcing strong sanctions against Moscow, calling Putin’s actions a violation of international law, while UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said the world is facing “the biggest global peace and security crisis in recent years.”
Guterres called Russia’s declaration of the independence of separatist areas in the Donbas region a violation of Ukraine's territorial integrity. He agreed that Russia's unilateral actions represent “a death blow to the Minsk agreements,” which were signed in 2015 and were designed to set out a path to a peace settlement.
He also took exception to Russia describing its forces as peacekeepers, saying that when troops of one country enter the territory of another country without its consent, “they are not impartial peacekeepers -- they are not peacekeepers at all” as Moscow has called them.
U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said war could still be averted as he welcomed Ukraine's Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba to the Pentagon.
"Mr. Putin can still avoid a full-blown, tragic war of choice," Austin told Kuleba, adding: "We will continue to work closely with you."
Kuleba said his message was simple: a strong Ukraine "is the best deterrence of Russia."
Kuleba later met with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken at the State Department. He told a joint news conference afterward that Ukraine and Western countries can still stop Putin if they continue mounting pressure against him.
Blinken said Putin's speech recognizing two separatist regions in Ukraine and comments he made on February 22 were "deeply disturbing" and made clear that Putin views Ukraine as "subordinate."
The United States and its allies will continue to escalate sanctions if Russia further escalates its aggression toward Ukraine, Blinken said.
Earlier in Brussels, NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg said Russia has not stopped planning for a full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
"Every indication is that Russia is continuing to plan for a full-scale attack of Ukraine," Stoltenberg told a news conference. "We continue to call on Russia to step back...it's never too late not to attack," he added.
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