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Russia recognizes 2 Ukrainian regions as independent

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Russian President Vladimir Putin has ordered Russian troops to eastern Ukraine's two breakaway regions to conduct, quote, "peacekeeping operations." The move came shortly after Putin said Russia would recognize the independence of those two separatist regions in eastern Ukraine. The two breakaway republics have requested Russian assistance. This move escalates the threat of war and has been condemned by Western leaders.

We're joined now by NPR's Charles Maynes in Rostov-na-Donu, a city close to the border with Ukraine. And we also have with us NPR's Frank Langfitt, who's in Kyiv. Hello to both of you.

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: Hi there.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Hi, Ailsa.

CHANG: All right. Charles, let's start with you. Can you just give us some more details about what exactly Putin did today?

MAYNES: Yeah, sure. Putin signed a decree ordering Russian troops into eastern Ukraine's two breakaway regions to conduct what they called - what he called peacekeeping operations, this in response to requests by the separatist republics for protection from the Ukrainian army. And in fact, we've already seen early witness video reporting that - claiming to spot Russian tanks already on the move towards the border.

Now, this peacekeeping announcement was the last in a day of carefully orchestrated Kremlin moves, which led to Russia formally recognizing these two self-proclaimed separatist republics in the Donbas - in other words, in east Ukraine. You know, this morning we saw the separatist leaders make a coordinated appeal for recognition. Then Putin convened his Security Council, and their top advisers all pushed for the idea only to see Putin kind of stop short of making the decision on the spot. And then this evening came Putin's announcement that attempts to resolve the conflict in east Ukraine through diplomacy with the government in Kyiv had failed.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: And so here, immediately Putin says he sat down and said he'd taken a long-needed decision to recognize the Luhansk and Donetsk People's Republics. And immediately he met with separatist leaders, who were suddenly in Moscow for a signing ceremony at the Kremlin, and it was all done.

CHANG: And I understand those remarks we just heard from Putin - they were part of an hour-long speech. What else did Putin say?

MAYNES: It was a long speech, and it was a deeply aggrieved one, not only about Russia's soured relations with Ukraine but also with the U.S. You know, Putin basically made the case that Ukraine was a failed state and always had been. He argued it was a country manufactured artificially by the Soviet leadership dating back to Vladimir Lenin. He said it was one overrun by nationalists who made the breakup of the Soviet Union and increasingly divorced from its imperial Russian roots. He also argued it was completely run by American occupants who turned Ukrainians against Russians as part of what Putin said was a wider plan by the West to destroy Russia.

And Putin argued Ukraine posed this existential threat because of its NATO ambitions. And he envisioned this day when Ukraine, as a NATO member with U.S. backing, would launch nuclear missiles on the Russian homeland. And yet all of this really was just a prologue to recognizing these two separatist republics and offering Russia as their security guarantor going forward.

CHANG: Well, Frank, turning to you in Kyiv, what are you hearing from Ukrainians at this point? Like, what's been your reaction so far to Putin's declaration?

LANGFITT: Yeah, Ailsa. I mean, first, I think the government is taking this very seriously. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy - he spoke with President Biden and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson today. Zelenskyy has convened his national security and defense councils.

And on the streets of Kyiv, things are calm. They've been calm really since the beginning of the troop buildup on the border back which - really back last fall. Online, we're seeing a wide range of reactions. Many people are saying they're going to join these territorial defense units to protect the country against a possible attack. A lot of people are urging people to donate money to the army.

Ukrainians who fled earlier from the fighting in these separatist regions - they're saying, you know, I will never go home again. And then responding to Putin's claim that Ukraine is run by fascist, Russophobic - basically a fascist, Russophobic regime, one person wrote, well, at least he admitted that he has lost Ukraine. And I think that that's a very powerful statement.

CHANG: Yeah.

LANGFITT: You know, if you talk to people here, they are not very interested in Russia. They do not like Vladimir Putin. They are much more focused on a relationship with the West and Europe. And if you look at polls now, more than two-thirds of Ukrainians want to join NATO and the European Union. Only 21% would want to be a part of an economic bloc with Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan.

CHANG: So interesting. So what do you think Ukraine will be watching for in the coming hours, the coming days?

LANGFITT: Well, they'll be looking to see how the West responds to all of this. And so far, what we've seen out of the White House is they've been saying moving troops into the Donbas and eastern Ukraine does not necessarily basically count as further invasion. The U.S. is saying Russian troops have been in the region since 2014 despite the fact that Moscow has been denying that.

But I think the question also is, how far do these troops go? What do they do? And if there's a lot more violence, which - I think if there's more violence, which I think could be expected, how do they justify it? Are there going to be staged false flag operations in which Russia claims some, you know, Ukrainian army people have attacked civilians or troops in a way to insist that they can take more territory?

We've already seen some disinformation this afternoon in a headline, a Russian news site, saying Kyiv inflicts massive strikes on residential areas in Donetsk People's Republic. But we don't have any evidence for that. And the question is, do they even go farther? Is there a massive invasion, as the United States has - says that they think could easily happen coming out of Belarus, up from Crimea and actually coming right here to Kiev in an attempt to topple the government here?

CHANG: All right. Well, Charles, as we mentioned, you were in the border region with Ukraine today, the Donbas, from where many people have been heading into Russia. What have you been hearing from them?

MAYNES: Yeah. I spent the day out in Rostov Oblast talking to people who fled after the separatist leaders declared the area unsafe for civilians. And, you know, many said they were tired of the fighting but saw independence for these so-called republics as a first step towards peace and eventually joining the Russian Federation.

You know, now as I was traveling around, I saw quite a few tanks and armored vehicles tucked in the surrounding woods. And this, of course, is also part of Putin's speech today. It's a threat that if Ukraine responds militarily in any way, as Frank's suggesting, you know, these separatist territories now have the full backing of the Russian military with more than 150,000 troops now massed near Ukraine's border, and they're ready to respond.

CHANG: That was NPR's Charles Maynes in southwest Russia near the Ukrainian border and NPR's Frank Langfitt reporting from Kyiv. Thanks very much to both of you.

LANGFITT: Thank you.

MAYNES: Good to talk, Ailsa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Frank Langfitt is NPR's London correspondent. He covers the UK and Ireland, as well as stories elsewhere in Europe.