In a move sure to further fuel tensions with the West, Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday officially recognized Ukraine's breakaway Donetsk and Luhansk regions as independent states and signed the relevant agreements with the separatist leaders in the Kremlin.
Putin also said he will request that Russia’s parliament "immediately recognize" the agreements as valid.
He also called on Ukraine "to stop the hostilities in the Donbas region" of eastern Ukraine – along Russia’s border, where Donetsk and Luhansk are located – saying that otherwise "the responsibility for what happens" will lie with the country's leaders.
Explaining his decision, Putin said a threat to Russia is arising due to "Ukraine's military development by NATO," which he said is already happening.
Ukraine is not a member of NATO, and prospects for membership are distant, but Putin has raised the possibility of it joining the alliance as justification for his recent demands in the region.
Security concerns ‘ignored’
Lashing out at Ukraine’s government, Putin said "the oligarchic Ukrainian authorities" do not care about the well-being of the Ukrainian people but instead "serve the geopolitical interests" of the West in order "to defend stolen money."
He also insisted that Russia has tried to address security issues peacefully, but its principal concerns were ignored by Ukraine and the US.
Putin also blasted Washington, accusing it of being behind the 2014 “coup" that ousted a pro-Russian leader, saying it had turned Ukraine into "a battlefield against Russia," with plans to create a military command center in Crimea "targeting Russia's Black Sea fleet."
Shortly after the ouster of Viktor Yanukovych, Russia invaded and annexed Crimea, in a move the US, UN General Assembly, and Turkiye call illegal.
The pro-separatist conflict in Donbas followed and has claimed more than 13,000 people since 2014, according to the UN.
Putin said Russia has long waited for its concerns to be heard but as there have been no changes, Moscow will defend its security as it deems necessary.
Tensions have recently risen dramatically in eastern Ukraine, with reports of a growing number of cease-fire violations, multiple shelling incidents, and evacuation of civilians from the pro-Russian breakaway regions of Donetsk and Luhansk.
Western countries have accused Russia of amassing more than 100,000 troops near Ukraine, prompting fears that it could be planning a military offensive against its ex-Soviet neighbor.
Moscow has repeatedly denied any plan to invade Ukraine and instead accused Western countries of undermining Russia's security through NATO's expansion toward its borders.