Moscow: President Vladimir Putin warned Monday that Western powers were using Moscow’s feud with Ukraine to threaten Russia’s own security and said he was considering recognising the independence of two breakaway Russian-backed regions.
Openly backing the separatist regions of Donetsk and Lugansk in eastern Ukraine would effectively put to an end an already shaky peace plan and dramatically increase the likelihood of an all-out Russian invasion.
Moscow appeared to be already laying the groundwork for such an operation by claiming - to furious Kyiv denials - that its forces had intercepted and killed five Ukrainian saboteurs who infiltrated Russian territory, and accusing Ukraine of shelling a border post.
The claim and counterclaim undermined efforts by European leaders to broker a diplomatic resolution, by urging Putin to hold a summit with his US counterpart Joe Biden, although Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov did say he would meet his US counterpart on Thursday.
Putin made his declaration as he opened a carefully stage-managed meeting of Russia’s national security council with made-for-television opening remarks.
Security or confrontation?
“Our goal is to listen to our colleagues and determine our next steps in this direction, bearing in mind both the appeals of the leaders of the DNR (Donetsk People’s Republic) and LNR (Lugansk People’s Republic) to recognise their independence,” Putin said.
“The use of Ukraine as an instrument of confrontation with our country poses a serious, very big threat to us,” Putin said, adding that Moscow’s priority was “not confrontation, but security”.
Ukraine and Washington, however, now expect confrontation.
US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan told NBC news that a Russian invasion of its neighbour would be an “extremely violent” operation followed by a brutal occupation.
“It will be a war waged by Russia on the Ukrainian people to repress them, to crush them, to harm them,” the White House official said.
Reflecting the gravity of the situation, which Western leaders have dubbed the worst threat to peace in Europe since the Cold War, stocks listed on the Moscow Stock Exchange fell steeply by around 10 percent.
Western powers have threatened a crippling sanctions package if Russia invades.
‘Crush them, harm them’
The Kremlin has dispatched a huge force to Ukraine’s border - US intelligence says it is more than 150,000-strong and poised to attack - and on Monday the military said it had killed five infiltrators in the Rostov region, near Russia’s border with rebel-held Ukraine.
“As a result of clashes, five people who violated the Russian border from a group of saboteurs were killed,” the military said in a statement.
This followed an earlier claim that a shell fired from Ukraine had destroyed a shed at a Russian border post, and repeated claims that Kyiv’s forces are shelling the pro-Russian enclave or plotting to attack it.
Kyiv, concerned that Russia is building a narrative to justify an invasion, immediately denied all the allegations, which are being widely broadcast on Russian state media, and Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba took to Twitter.
“No, Ukraine did NOT: attack Donetsk or Lugansk, send saboteurs or APCs (armoured personnel carriers) over the Russian border, shell Russian territory, shell Russian border crossing, conduct acts of sabotage,” he said.
“Ukraine also does NOT plan any such actions. Russia, stop your fake-producing factory now,” he wrote.
Mounting concern over an invasion quickly overshadowed a French diplomatic initiative, backed by Germany, to push for a summit between Putin and Biden.
Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said: “It’s premature to talk about any specific plans for organising any kind of summits” adding that no “concrete plans” had been put in place.
A French presidential official later called on Putin to make a quick decision on the meeting, calling the situation “very dangerous”.
“It is today possible to move towards a summit... it is up to President Putin to make his choice,” the source said.
Visiting Brussels, Kuleba gave a cautious welcome to the French effort. “We believe that every effort aimed at a diplomatic solution is worth trying,” he said.
But Defence Minister Oleksiy Reznikov said there was no sign of Russian forces withdrawing from the border and that Moscow-backed rebels continue to shell Ukrainian positions.
Russia annexed the Ukrainian region of Crimea in 2014 and Moscow-backed separatists hold an enclave in the eastern distracts of Lugansk and Donetsk.
In recent weeks, according to US intelligence, Moscow has massed an invasion force of troops, tanks, missile batteries and warships around Ukraine’s borders in Belarus, Russia, Crimea and the Black Sea.
Biden has said that US intelligence believes that Putin has made a decision to invade Ukraine and that commanders are readying units to attack within days.