The Kremlin said two Moscow-backed separatist territories in eastern Ukraine had asked Vladimir Putin to “repel the aggression of the Ukrainian regime”, in the strongest signal yet that Russia is about to launch a full invasion of the country.
Russian newswires published letters on Wednesday in which the leaders of the breakaway statelets in the Donbas border region asked Russia’s president to use military force to protect them from what they described as “ongoing military aggression” by Ukraine.
Kyiv and its western allies say the claims of a Ukrainian attack – which have been spread widely on Russian state television, backed up by little or no evidence – are “phoney allegations” meant to create a pretext for war.
The move is the clearest sign that Russia is on the precipice of launching a full invasion of Ukraine after it massed as many as 190,000 troops on the border, recognized the separatists’ independence, and vowed to hold Kyiv responsible for any “ensuing bloodshed”.
A Pentagon official said earlier on Wednesday that Russia had placed 100 percent of the troops and weapons that it requires for a full-scale invasion in an enormous military deployment around Ukraine and in neighboring Belarus.
An attack could involve a massive assault on big cities including Kyiv and potentially kill tens of thousands of people in a matter of days, officials and analysts say.
Putin said on Tuesday that he was prepared to send troops into the Donbas and demanded that Kyiv “demilitarize”, surrender the entire Donbas border region to the separatists, and declare neutrality.
He said earlier on Wednesday that Russia was prepared for dialogue on security issues with the west, but warned he would not negotiate on “the interests of Russia and our citizens’ safety”.