Global efforts to head off a Russian invasion of Ukraine were dealt a serious blow Monday when Russian President Vladimir Putin signed decrees recognizing the independence of two separatist regions in eastern Ukraine and ordered his military to "maintain peace" in the disputed areas.
But Putin's moves, made as shelling continued in those areas, could be a precursor to the Kremlin sending in troops and weapons to support Russian-backed separatists. Doing so is sure to deepen already inflamed tensions between Russia and the West.
The White House said President Joe Biden had agreed "in principle" to meeting Putin only if the Kremlin refrains from launching an assault on Ukraine. Even in advance of any invasion, however, both Biden and the European Union said they would move ahead with targeted sanctions in response to Putin's decrees.
U.S. officials said Biden would soon issue an executive order prohibiting Americans from investing and doing business in rebel-held areas. The order would also allow the U.S. to impose sanctions on anyone in the area, a move to exact economic pain on key supporters of the breakaway incursion.
In a joint statement, EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Council President Charles Michel called Russia’s recognition of the disputed territories "a blatant violation of international law" and also vowed economic repercussions.
A Biden-Putin meeting would offer some new hope of averting a Russian invasion that U.S. officials said appeared imminent, as an estimated 150,000 Russian troops await Putin's orders to strike. It was uncertain when — or if — troops massing at the border would enter Ukraine.
Here is a look at the latest developments in the security crisis in Eastern Europe:
Putin decrees independence for separatist regions
In a long, ranting speech during a meeting of the Russian presidential Security Council, Putin charged that Ukraine had inherited Russia’s historic lands and after the Soviet collapse was used by the West to contain Russia.
His decision to recognize the independence of separatist regions in eastern Ukraine severely ratcheted up the volatility. Western officials fear that Russia could invade Ukraine any moment, using skirmishes in eastern Ukraine as a pretext for an attack.
The decree allows Russia to sign treaties with rebel territories in eastern Ukraine and openly send troops and weapons there.
Putin's decree tasked his foreign minister with establishing formal diplomatic relations with the separatist regions and offer mutual assistance when requested by rebel leaders to "maintain peace" in the two regions.
The decision came Monday after the Russian Security Council meeting, and it effectively shatters the 2015 Minsk peace agreements, which ended large-scale fighting. Violence has nevertheless simmered — and has seen a spike in recent weeks in the wider crisis.
A U.S. official said that a recognition of the two regions would be "condemnable."
"If carried out, this would again result in the upending of the rules-based international order, under the threat of force," Michael Carpenter, the U.S. ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, told a special session of the organization in Vienna.
The meeting of Putin’s presidential Security Council followed televised statements by separatist leaders, who pleaded with Putin to recognize them as independent states and sign friendship treaties envisaging military aid to protect them from what they described as the ongoing Ukrainian military offensive. Russia’s lower house made the same plea last week.
Ukrainian authorities deny launching an offensive and accuse Russia of provocation as shelling intensifies along the line of contact.
Will Biden and Putin meet?
The U.S. and Russian presidents have tentatively agreed to meet in a last-ditch diplomatic effort to stave off Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, its first since Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014.
Yet both seem cautious about a possible meeting.
The White House says the meeting will only happen if Russia does not invade Ukraine, noting that heavy shelling is continuing in eastern Ukraine.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, for his part, said Monday "it’s premature to talk about specific plans for a summit."
French President Emmanuel Macron sought to broker the possible meeting between Biden and Putin in a series of phone calls that dragged deep into Sunday night. Macron’s office said both leaders had "accepted the principle of such a summit," to be followed by a broader meeting involving other leaders too.
The White House said Biden on Monday conferred with Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz during a 30-minute call.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov were to lay the groundwork for the summit at a meeting Thursday, according to Macron's office.
What's the situation on Ukraine's eastern front?
Heavy shelling has increased in recent days along the tense line of contact between Ukrainian forces and Russian-backed separatist rebels in Ukraine’s eastern industrial heartland of Donbas.
The conflict there began after Russia's annexation of Crimea. The fighting has claimed at least 14,000 lives but had been largely quiet for a while.
Ukrainian military spokesman Pavlo Kovalchyuk said Ukrainian positions were shelled 80 times Sunday and eight times early Monday, noting that the separatists were "cynically firing from residential areas using civilians as shields." He said Ukrainian forces weren’t returning fire.
In the village of Novognativka on the government-controlled side, 60-year-old Ekaterina Evseeva, said the shelling was worse than at the height of fighting.
"It’s worse than 2014," she said, her voice trembling. "We are on the edge of nervous breakdowns. And there is nowhere to run."
Russian troops stay in Belarus, adding to fears
Russian troops who have been carrying out military exercises in Belarus, which is located on Ukraine's northern border, were supposed to go home when those war games ended Sunday. But now Moscow and Minsk say that the Russian troops are staying indefinitely.
The continued deployment of the Russian forces in Belarus raised concerns that Russia could send those troops to sweep down on the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv, a city of 3 million less than a three-hour drive away from the Belarus border.
Ukraine projects calm
Despite Biden’s assertion that Putin has made the decision to roll Russian forces into Ukraine, Ukrainian officials sought to project calm, saying that they weren't seeing an invasion as imminent.
Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov said Monday that Russia has amassed 147,000 troops around Ukraine, including 9,000 in Belarus, arguing that the number is insufficient for an offensive on the Ukrainian capital.
"The talk about an attack on Kyiv from the Belarusian side sounds ridiculous," he said, charging that Russia is using the troops there to create fear.
Over the weekend at the Polish border, many Ukrainians were also returning home from shopping or working in the neighboring EU country. Some said they were not afraid and vowed to take up arms against Russia in case of an assault.
EU offers to advise Ukraine
For all the posturing and vows of reprisal from Western leaders, direct military intervention has thus far been ruled out.
However, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said Monday the European Union has agreed to set up a military education advisory mission in his country.
Kuleba told reporters in Brussels after meeting with the bloc's foreign ministers that an agreement had been reached in principle to roll out the advisory training military mission.
"This is not combat forces," he said. "This is a new element in the cooperation between Ukraine and the European Union."
The move could involve sending European officers to Ukraine’s military schools to help educate its armed forces. It’s likely to take several months to set up.
Russia has sought promises from NATO that it would never offer membership to Ukraine and other former Soviet republics, a condition that the West has rejected.
The chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark A. Milley, spoke Monday with the commander-in-chief of the Ukrainian armed forces, Lt. Gen. Valery Zaluzhny.
Milley called Ukraine a key partner to NATO, according to the Pentagon's summary of the phone call.
The latest British warnings
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he was preparing to speak to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and "offer him the support of the United Kingdom."
Earlier, Britain’s defense secretary, Ben Wallace, urged Putin to turn away from military action and pursue diplomacy not just for the sake of Ukrainians but to prevent Russian deaths.
Russians know the consequences of the past actions, including the invasion of Afghanistan and Russia’s invasion of Chechnya, he said.
"These are just two examples when too many young men returned home in zinc-lined coffins, and the government therefore urges President Putin for the sake of his own people, and even at this 11th hour, to rule out the invasion of Ukraine," he said.
Wallace told the House of Commons that Putin had continued to build up forces in the region. Russia has now massed 65% of its land combat power on the Ukrainian border, he said.
U.K. Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said the West was preparing "for the worst-case scenario," adding: "We must make the cost for Russia intolerably high."
Associated Press writers Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow; Yuras Karmanau and Lori Hinnant in Kyiv, Ukraine; Jill Lawless and Danica Kirka in London; Lorne Cook in Brussels, Frances D'Emilio in Rome, Angela Charlton in Paris and Bobby Caina Calvan in New York contributed to this report.