Vladimir Putin orders 'peace-keeping' forces into separatist regions of Ukraine amid invasion fears

ITV News Europe Editor James Mates reports on Vladimir Putin's "dismemberment of Ukraine"

Russian President Vladimir Putin has ordered "peace-keeping" forces into two separatist regions in eastern Ukraine just hours after he recognised them as independent, in a move many fear could be Moscow seeking to annex them.

Russian media reported that the move was part of the decree Mr Putin signed when he recognised Donetsk and Luhansk as independent.

The two Moscow-backed regions have been staging pleas for help from Russia in recent days and evacuating civilians from what they claim is Ukrainian aggression - but all of this has been called a fabrication by western intelligence and part of a ploy for Russia to invade.

People from Donetsk, the territory controlled by a pro-Russia separatist government in eastern Ukraine, evacuate the region. Credit: AP

ITV News Correspondent Dan Rivers who is in the eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv said unconfirmed video on social media showed Russian troops heading to the border, and men being forcibly conscripted in the breakaway regions.

What do President Putin's actions mean for other former Soviet states? ITV News Correspondents in Moscow, Kyiv and Washington DC analyse the unfolding events

Boris Johnson branded Mr Putin's decision to recognise Donetsk and Luhansk as independent an "ill omen" and a "flagrant breach of sovereignty".

The PM will chair an emergency Cobra meeting at 6.30am on Tuesday morning to agree a package of sanctions to be imposed on Russia following Mr Putin's moves.

ITV News Political Editor Robert Peston said he understands the sanctions will hit Russian oligarchs and businesses, in the hope that they will put pressure on Mr Putin.

Both Donetsk and Luhansk have large numbers of ethnic Russians and have separated from Ukraine since the 2014 conflict, acting as effectively Russian puppet states.

Russia similarly recognised two breakaway regions of the former Soviet republic of Georgia in 2008 after a brief war, and expanded its military presence in both South Ossetia and Abkhazia on the Black Sea.

The Kremlin initially signalled its reluctance to recognise the regions in eastern Ukraine, arguing that would effectively shatter the Minsk peace deal signed in 2015, and which both sides have been accusing the other of violating.

Recognition of the two regions is an explicit violation of the treaty.

Giving a televised update after announcing the end of all Covid-19 restrictions in England, Mr Johnson was repeatedly questioned about Mr Putin's actions and the increasing tensions between Russia and the west.

“This is plainly in breach of international law, it’s a flagrant violation of the sovereignty and integrity of Ukraine," the prime minister said.

He also said it was a "repudiation" of the Minsk peace agreements signed by Ukraine, France, Germany and Russia in 2015 that brought an end to the conflict in the eastern regions of Ukraine.

Mr Johnson spoke to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on Monday night and said he would "explore sending further defensive support" at the request of the country's government.

A Downing Street spokesperson said the PM "told President Zelenskyy that the UK had already drawn up sanctions to target those complicit in the violation of Ukraine's territorial integrity, and that those measures would come into force tomorrow.

"The prime minister also said he would explore sending further defensive support to Ukraine, at the request of the Ukrainian government.

"The leaders agreed that the West needed to support Ukraine in the event of an invasion, but should continue to pursue a diplomatic solution until the last possible second.

"Regardless of President Putin's actions, the UK would be steadfast in its full support of Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity."

The White House said US President Joe Biden will soon issue an Executive Order that will prohibit new investment, trade and financing by US persons to, from, or in Donetsk or Luhansk. However, critics argued this was too weak, with the majority of deals not being done in the two separatist regions.

Meanwhile, in a joint statement, European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen and European Council president Charles Michel said it was an “illegal act” and “a blatant violation of international law".

They added that the bloc “will react with sanctions” and “reiterates its unwavering support to Ukraine’s independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity within its internationally recognised borders".

Nato secretary general Jens Stoltenberg said: “This further undermines Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, erodes efforts towards a resolution of the conflict, and violates the Minsk Agreements, to which Russia is a party.”

"The phase of diplomacy is over," reports ITV News Global Security Editor Rohit Kachroo

The Russian Duma (parliament) and a string of top politicians have called for Mr Putin to recognise the territories as independent nations in several carefully orchestrated pre-recorded meetings in recent days.

During a staged and televised meeting on Monday, Mr Putin’s top defence and security officials paraded before him one by one to outline arguments for recognising the regions as independent to protect civilians there.

At one point, one slipped up and said he favoured including them as part of Russian territory - but Mr Putin quickly corrected him.

In a lengthy press conference later in the day, Mr Putin delivered remarks on the history of Russia and blamed the failures of the founders of the Soviet Union, as well as the people who eventually dissolved it, for the current crisis.

He claimed Ukraine was controlled by western governments and non-governmental organisations.

While it is widely expected that Russia will invade, another scenario being considered by intelligence agencies within Ukraine is that the main attack could instead take place in the shadows, harder to spot but perhaps no less devastating, reports ITV News Global Security Editor Rohit Kachroo

He also claimed Ukraine was adopting discriminatory decrees against Russians and claimed the people of Crimea willingly joined with Russia - despite the 2014 invasion and the referendum many claimed was rigged.

Mr Putin has regularly talked about his view that Ukraine and Russia should never have been separated but the historical arguments he uses to justify his position have been fiercely contested by historians.

A Ukrainian serviceman leaves a coomand post to start his shift at a frontline position outside Popasna, in the Luhansk region. Credit: AP

Ukraine has called for an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council to discuss the situation.

Additionally, Defence Secretary Ben Wallace said there is still “strong cause for concern” that President Putin remains committed to an invasion of Ukraine.

Russia on Sunday rescinded earlier pledges to pull tens of thousands of its troops back from Ukraine's northern border, a move that US leaders said put Russia another step closer to what they said was the planned invasion of Ukraine. Residents of Ukraine's capital filled a gold-domed cathedral to pray for peace.

Police officers take part in a protest in Odessa. Credit: AP

Russia's action extends what it said were military exercises, originally set to end on Sunday, that brought an estimated 30,000 Russian forces to Belarus, Ukraine's neighbour to the north.

They are among at least 150,000 Russian troops now deployed outside Ukraine's borders, along with tanks, warplanes, artillery and other war materiel.

The continued deployment of the Russian forces in Belarus raised concern that Russia could send those troops to sweep down on the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, a city of about three million people less than a three-hour drive away.

The United States and many European countries have charged for weeks that Putin has built up the forces he needs to invade Ukraine - a westward-looking democracy that has sought to move out of Russia's orbit - and is now trying to create pretexts to invade.

Western nations have threatened massive sanctions if Putin does.