It was an extraordinary piece of political theatre in the Kremlin today by Russian President Vladimir Putin. He signed off the televised national security council meeting by announcing he would make a decision on whether to recognise two breakaway territories in eastern Ukraine later in the day. At 9.45pm he appeared on state television to address the nation, announcing he was signing the declaration recognising Donetsk and Luhansk. The gravity of this moment should not be underestimated. A day which had started with hopes of a possible summit between presidents Joe Biden and Putin, to try and solve the Ukraine crisis, has ended with the diplomatic way out all but over.
Until now, Moscow has not officially recognised these self-declared republics. The Russian parliament has called for the move but until now, President Putin has held off. Now that the decision has been made, Ukraine and the West fear it could mean Russia could now openly send military forces into these areas. Russia still insists it has no intention to invade Ukraine. But tonight’s move means Russia no longer accepts these self-declared republics are still part of Ukraine. Tonight’s move, in effect, also kills the Minsk agreements signed seven and eight years ago. They are the internationally recognised process that has attempted to deal with the crisis in eastern Ukraine during that period. The Minsk agreements have only been partially implemented and had called for special status for the areas, free elections and withdrawal of all foreign forces and mercenaries.
President Putin's announcement will also raise questions about whether the West will now trigger sanctions. Some western political voices have already called for sanctions to be deployed against Russia now, i.e. before any possible invasion. Will tonight’s move make that more likely? President Putin's address felt like it has been in the making since he first came to power around 20 years ago. He once described the collapse of the Soviet Union as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century”. Tonight the former KGB man talked of the humiliation Russia has suffered from the "threats" of Nato's expansion near its borders over the past few decades. The consequences of Moscow’s move are only just sinking in. These are now critical hours ahead for Ukraine, Russia and Europe.