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Putin weighs his next move after recognizing Ukraine rebels

February 22, 2022 GMT
Russian President Vladimir Putin signs a document recognizing the independence of separatist regions in eastern Ukraine in the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, Monday, Feb. 21, 2022. Russia's Putin has recognized the independence of separatist regions in eastern Ukraine, raising tensions with West. (Alexei Nikolsky, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)
Russian President Vladimir Putin signs a document recognizing the independence of separatist regions in eastern Ukraine in the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, Monday, Feb. 21, 2022. Russia's Putin has recognized the independence of separatist regions in eastern Ukraine, raising tensions with West. (Alexei Nikolsky, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)
Russian President Vladimir Putin signs a document recognizing the independence of separatist regions in eastern Ukraine in the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, Monday, Feb. 21, 2022. Russia's Putin has recognized the independence of separatist regions in eastern Ukraine, raising tensions with West. (Alexei Nikolsky, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)
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Russian President Vladimir Putin signs a document recognizing the independence of separatist regions in eastern Ukraine in the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, Monday, Feb. 21, 2022. Russia's Putin has recognized the independence of separatist regions in eastern Ukraine, raising tensions with West. (Alexei Nikolsky, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)
1 of 3
Russian President Vladimir Putin signs a document recognizing the independence of separatist regions in eastern Ukraine in the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, Monday, Feb. 21, 2022. Russia's Putin has recognized the independence of separatist regions in eastern Ukraine, raising tensions with West. (Alexei Nikolsky, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

MOSCOW (AP) — Russian President Vladimir Putin has raised the stakes in the Ukraine standoff by recognizing the independence of rebel regions in the country’s east, and a key question now is whether he will stop at that or try to move deeper into Ukraine.

Putin signaled his readiness to up the ante in an hourlong address to the nation that cast Ukraine as an artificial construct, a U.S. “puppet” that has “robbed” Russia of historical lands lost in the Soviet collapse. But at the same time, the Russian leader appeared to keep the door open for diplomacy if the West agrees to Moscow’s security demands.

Russia wants the U.S. and its allies to keep Ukraine and other ex-Soviet nations from joining NATO, halt weapons deployments there and roll back alliance forces in Eastern Europe — demands the West has dismissed as nonstarters.

On Tuesday, Putin offered a streamlined version of his top demands, saying that Ukraine should renounce its bid to join NATO, partially demilitarize and recognize Russia’s sovereignty over Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula that Russia annexed from Ukraine in 2014.

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Given NATO’s position to keep an open door to potential new members, Putin said, one way out of the impasse would be for Ukraine to drop its plans to join the alliance and adopt a non-aligned, neutral status.

Putin, who quickly received permission from the Kremlin-controlled parliament to use military force in Ukraine, also insisted that he has not yet sent troops into the rebel regions, despite Western leaders’ claim to the contrary.

Asked how far Russian troops could push if sent to the rebel east, Putin responded coyly that “it’s impossible to forecast a specific pattern of action — it will depend on a concrete situation as it takes shape on the ground.”

The U.S. and its allies have responded to Moscow’s latest move with new sanctions and threatened even more crippling penalties in case of an all-out invasion, including tough financial restrictions and draconian bans on technology imports. But Putin shrugged off the threats and said that Washington would inevitably ramp up sanctions anyway to contain Russia.

“Putin has grown tougher, more intransigent and aggressive,” said Moscow-based political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin, explaining that Putin could ponder a future offensive to capture territories in southern Ukraine all the way to the Black Sea port Odessa, but that he probably would not rush it.

Putin sees himself as a “great collector of Russian lands” a view that drives him to take brazen steps that would harm national interests, Oreshkin added.

The Russian leader’s no-holds-barred approach comes as Russia has amassed over 150,000 troops that surround Ukraine on three sides in what the U.S. sees as a sign of an imminent invasion.

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In a long rant, Putin scathingly described Ukraine as a creation of Soviet founder Vladimir Lenin and other Communist leaders of the Soviet Union that unfairly included big swaths of land that once belonged to Russia. He derided Ukraine’s effort to shed the Soviet-era legacy in the “decommunization” effort, and said sarcastically that the country should be named after Lenin.

“We are ready to show you what the real decommunization would mean for Ukraine,” Putin added ominously in an apparent signal of his readiness to level new land claims against the neighbor.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov also openly questioned Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. He said Tuesday that those principles are only valid in relation to governments that represent entire nations and contended that the “Ukrainian regime” falls short of that standard because it does not represent the whole country.

In a potential precursor of more land claims, Putin emphasized that Russia has recognized the rebel regions in the borders that existed when they proclaimed their independence in 2014. Ukraine has retained control of about two thirds of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, including the major port of Mariupol on the Azov Sea, following the eight-year separatist conflict that has killed over 14,000.

Putin himself said the rebels should negotiate with Ukraine to determine their regions’ borders, but separatist leaders held open the prospect for a future offensive to seize more territory. Donetsk separatist leader Denis Pushilin said Tuesday that “time will show what next moves we will take.”

Russian troops around Ukraine include forces that were deployed to Moscow’s ally Belarus for joint military drills, which were to end Sunday but were instead extended indefinitely. Those exercises offer the Kremlin a convenient vantage point for a potential attack on the Ukrainian capital, which is just 75 kilometers (less than 50 miles) south of the Belarusian border.

Even as Russia has ratcheted up its rhetoric and kept its troops in combat posture, Putin hinted that he was still ready for more talks with the West.

Before the Kremlin made its latest move, French President Emmanuel Macron had sought to broker a meeting between Putin and U.S. President Joe Biden provided that Russia does not launch a full-fledged invasion, but the prospect of such an encounter appears dim after Putin’s recognition of the rebel territories.

Ivan Timofeev, the program director at the Russian International Affairs Council, noted that Putin’s actions effectively put on hold any further negotiations with the U.S. and NATO. “There still will be a room for diplomacy, but there will be no talk about any sort of negotiations on European security,” he said in a commentary.

Most observers expect Putin to keep forces around Ukraine to maintain pressure on Kyiv and the West.

“Paradoxically, Russia is trying to reverse its status of a power that has lost the Cold War by creating a Cold War-style crisis,” Alexander Baunov of the Moscow Carnegie Center said.