Ukrainian service members walk near the front line near the city of Novoluhanske in the Donetsk region, Ukraine February 20, 2022.
Ukrainian service members walk near the front line near the city of Novoluhanske in the Donetsk region, Ukraine February 20, 2022. Reuters / GLEB GARANICH

Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Monday he could recognise two Russian-backed breakaway Ukrainian regions as independent, an aggressive move likely to torpedo a last-minute bid for a summit to prevent war.

Separately, Moscow said Ukrainian military saboteurs had tried to enter Russian territory in armed vehicles leading to five deaths, an accusation dismissed as "fake news" by Kyiv.

Both developments fit a pattern repeatedly predicted by Western governments, who accuse Russia of preparing to fabricate a pretext to invade Ukraine by blaming Kyiv for attacks and relying on pleas for help from separatist proxies.

In Washington, President Joe Biden summoned a meeting with his top security advisors. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and General Mark Milley, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, could be seen entering the White House on the President's Day holiday.

Washington says Russia has now massed a force numbering 169,000-190,000 troops in the region, including pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine, and could invade within days. Recognition of the rebel-held areas in the east could provide a pretext for Russian troops to cross the border into those areas.

Russia denies any plan to attack its neighbour but has threatened unspecified "military-technical" action unless it receives sweeping security guarantees, including a promise that Ukraine will never join NATO.

Recognition by Moscow of the rebel regions' independence would further narrow the diplomatic options to avoid war, since it would be an explicit rejection of a seven-year-old ceasefire mediated by France and Germany, still touted as the framework for any future negotiations on the wider crisis

European financial markets tumbled at the signs of increased confrontation, after having briefly edged higher on the glimmer of hope that a summit might offer a path out of Europe's biggest military crisis in decades. The price of oil - Russia's main export - rose, while Russian shares and the rouble plunged. [MKTS/GLOB] [RU/RUB] [O/R]

At a televised meeting of his Security Council, which normally meets behind closed doors, Putin restated Russia's demands, insisting that it was not enough for the West to say Ukraine was not ready to join NATO at present.

He said he would make a decision "today" on the request made a few hours earlier by the leaders of the Luhansk and Donetsk regions, which broke away from Kyiv's control in 2014.

At one point he mocked his foreign intelligence chief who appeared to be speaking without sufficient conviction: "Are you suggesting we open a negotiating process?" Putin said scornfully. "Speak straight."

After verbally stumbling, the official duly said he supported independence.

Shelling has intensified since last week along a long-simmering frontline between the rebels and Ukrainian forces. On Friday the rebels started bussing tens of thousands of civilians to Russia, accusing Kyiv of planning an attack, which Ukraine denies as propaganda.

Ukraine and the West consider the rebels to be Russia's proxies, and have been warning for weeks that Moscow might use them to construct a case for war. Washington says it is absurd to suggest that Kyiv would choose to escalate now, while menaced by Russian troops massed at its border.


Dmitry Medvedev, the Security Council's deputy chairman, told the meeting it was "obvious" Ukraine did not need the two regions, and that a majority of Russians would support their independence. Russia already offers passports to residents of the two regions and Medvedev said there were now 800,000 Russian citizens there.

Western officials seem increasingly resigned to war, which several have described as potentially Europe's worst since World War Two.

The airlines Lufthansa, KLM and Air France all cancelled flights to Kyiv.

Hours earlier, French President Emmanuel Macron gave hope of a diplomatic solution, saying Putin and Biden had agreed in principle to meet.

But the Kremlin said there were no specific plans for a summit. The White House said Biden had accepted the meeting "in principle" but only "if an invasion hasn't happened".

Washington has flatly rejected the idea of excluding Ukraine for good from NATO or pulling back forces from countries that joined the alliance since the Cold War. It has offered talks on weapons deployments and other security issues, which Russia rejects as insufficient.

Macron's office and the White House said details of any meeting between Putin and Biden would be worked out by Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov later this week.

Lavrov confirmed that he planned to meet Blinken in Geneva on Thursday, and said there had been some progress in talks with the West on security.


Western countries have been warning for days that Russia would concoct a pretext for an invasion, possibly with a "false flag" attack it could blame on Ukraine.

Russia's military said a group of saboteurs had crossed the frontier from Ukraine near the Russian city of Rostov on Monday morning, followed by two armoured vehicles coming to evacuate them. It said five members of those forces had been killed when Russian forces repelled them.

Ukraine said the report was "fake news", and that no Ukrainian forces were present in the Rostov region.

Western countries say they are preparing sanctions that would hit Russian companies and individuals. These could include barring U.S. financial institutions from processing transactions for Russian banks.

Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer said the European Union's package would stop certification of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline connecting Russia to Germany, which is awaiting German and EU regulatory approval.