VLADIMIR ISACHANKOV, YURAS KARMANOV and LORN KUK
MOSCOW (AP) – Russian President Vladimir Putin has said he will decide later Monday whether to recognize the independence of separatist regions in eastern Ukraine, which will increase tensions with the West amid fears that Moscow may launch an invasion of Ukraine soon. .
A well-organized, pre-recorded meeting of the President’s Security Council comes amid a spike in clashes in regions that Western nations say Russia could use as a pretext for attacking a Western-looking democracy that challenges Moscow’s attempts to divert it into its orbit. . At the meeting, a stream of senior Russian officials called for recognition of the independence of the separatist regions, although some suggested that Putin should not have done so immediately.
Approximately 150,000 Russian troops gathered on three sides of Ukraine warn that Moscow has already decided to invade. However, the American and Russian presidents had previously agreed to a possible meeting in a last-ditch attempt to avoid war.
If Russia joins, the meeting will be suspended, but the prospect of a personal summit has revived hopes that diplomacy could prevent a devastating conflict that will lead to mass casualties and enormous economic damage across Europe, which is heavily dependent on Russian energy.
As diplomatic efforts progressed, potential moments increased. Prolonged shelling continued in eastern Ukraine on Monday. Unusually, Russia said it had repulsed an “invasion” from Ukraine that Ukrainian officials had denied. And Russia has decided to extend military exercises in Belarus, which could become a platform for an attack on the Ukrainian capital Kiev.
If Russia recognizes the separatist regions, it will further fuel tensions, as Moscow could use the move to openly send troops and weapons there. Until now, Ukraine and the West have accused Russia of supporting the separatists, but Moscow has denied this, saying the Russians who fought there were volunteers.
At a meeting Monday, Putin’s top defense and security officials passed in front of him one by one to lay out arguments for recognizing the regions’ independence in order to protect civilians there. At one point, one waved and said he was in favor of including them in Russian territory, but Putin quickly corrected him.
However, some have suggested that Russia give the West a few more days to put pressure on Ukraine to implement the peace agreement that ended major fighting in 2015.
Earlier on Monday, regional leaders televised statements asking Putin to recognize them and sign treaties that would provide military assistance to protect them from what they described as a continuation of Ukraine’s military offensive. The lower house of the Russian parliament made the same demand last week.
Ukrainian authorities deny launching an offensive and accuse Russia of provocation.
Russia similarly recognized the two separatist 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.
But initially the Kremlin signaled its reluctance to recognize regions in eastern Ukraine, arguing that it effectively violated the peace deal, which was a major diplomatic coup for Moscow, demanding that Ukrainian authorities offer rebel regions broad self-government.
The deal outraged many in Ukraine, who saw it as capitulation, a blow to the country’s integrity and a betrayal of national interests. Putin and other officials on Monday claimed that Ukrainian authorities had shown no appetite for its implementation.
In connection with the approach of war, French President Emmanuel Macron has planned to organize a meeting between US President Joe Biden and Putin, who denies that he has plans to attack Ukraine.
Russia says it wants assurances from the West that NATO will not allow Ukraine and other former Soviet countries to join as members – and Putin said Monday that a simple moratorium on Ukraine’s accession would not be enough. Moscow has also demanded that the alliance stop deploying weapons in Ukraine and withdraw its forces from Eastern Europe, demands that the West has categorically rejected.
Macron’s office said the two leaders had “adopted the principle of such a summit”, followed by a broader meeting of other “relevant stakeholders to discuss security and strategic stability in Europe”.
They say Moscow and Washington were more cautious, but neither side denied that the meeting was being discussed.
During a meeting in the Kremlin, several top officials were skeptical about a possible summit, saying it was unlikely to lead to results.
Meanwhile, U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said the administration has always been ready to talk to prevent war, but was also ready to respond to any attack.
“So when President Macron asked President Biden yesterday if he was prepared to meet with President Putin if Russia did not invade, President Biden certainly said yes,” he told NBC Today on Monday. “But all the signs we see on the ground in terms of the location of Russian troops are that they are actually preparing for a major attack on Ukraine.”
Macron’s office said that US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov are going to lay the groundwork for a potential summit when they meet on Thursday.
Among the encouraging signs were the alarming ones. Since Thursday, shelling along a tense line of contact separating Ukrainian forces and Russian-backed rebels in the east of Ukraine’s industrial center in the Donbas has intensified. More than 14,000 people have been killed since the conflict erupted there in 2014, shortly after Moscow annexed the Ukrainian Crimean peninsula.
Ukraine and separatist insurgents have exchanged responsibility for mass violations of the ceasefire: hundreds of explosions are recorded daily. On Friday, separatist officials announced the evacuation of civilians and military mobilization in the face of what they described as Ukraine’s imminent attack on rebel regions. Ukrainian officials strongly deny any plans to launch such an attack.
While Russian-backed separatists have accused Ukrainian forces of shelling residential areas, Associated Press reporters from several towns and villages in the Ukrainian-dominated territory along the line of contact did not notice a noticeable escalation from Ukrainian hand and documented signs of intensified shelling by separatists who destroyed houses and tore roads.
Some residents of the main rebel-held city of Donetsk described sporadic shelling by Ukrainian forces, but they added that they were not on the same scale as before during the conflict.
On Monday, separatist authorities said that Ukrainian shelling had killed at least four civilians and injured several more in recent days. The Ukrainian military said two Ukrainian servicemen were killed last weekend and another was wounded on Monday.
Pavel Kovalchuk, a spokesman for the Ukrainian military, said the separatists were “cynically shelling residential areas, using civilians as a shield.” He insisted that Ukrainian forces did not respond to the fire.
In the village of Navagnatovka on the government-controlled side of Ukraine, 60-year-old Ekaterina Yevseyeva said the shelling was worse than in the midst of fighting at the beginning of the conflict.
“We are on the verge of nervous breakdowns. And there’s nowhere to run, ”she said in a trembling voice.
As another alarming sign, the Russian military said it had killed five suspected “saboteurs” who had moved from Ukraine to the Rostov region, as well as destroyed two armored vehicles. Spokesman for the Ukrainian Border Guard Service Andrei Demchenko dismissed the statement as “misinformation.”
Amid heightened fears of an invasion, the US administration sent a letter to the UN human rights leadership claiming that Moscow had compiled a list of Ukrainians who would be killed or sent to camps after the invasion. The letter, first reported by the New York Times, was received by the AP.
Kremlin spokesman Peskov said the statement was a lie and no such list existed.
Karmanov reported from Kyiv, Ukraine, and Cook from Brussels. Lori Hinnant in Kiev; Angela Charlton in Paris; Zick Miller and Aamer Madhani in Munich, Germany; Geir Mulson in Berlin; and Ellen Nickmaier, Robert Burns, Matthew Lee and Darlene Superville of Washington contributed to this report.
Follow the coverage of the Ukrainian crisis of the AP at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine