Russia’s upper house of parliament, the Federation Council, gave Russian President Vladimir Putin permission to use military force abroad on February 22.
Putin said no forces have been sent anywhere yet but he now has the power to send them should the situation demand. "I haven't said that troops will go there right now," Putin said responding to a question by a journalist if the deployment had begun.
The vote further increases the pressure on Ukraine, where Russia has already deployed some “peacekeepers” after Russia recognised the breakaway republics of Donetsk and Luhansk on February 21.
"The best solution to this problem is if Ukraine independently rejects Nato membership and declares neutrality," Putin added, outlining his game plan.
Deputy Defence Minister Nikolay Pankov submitted Putin’s request to the Federation Council, Ukrinform reports. The Russian deputy minister clarified that such an appeal was made in connection with the "situation in Donbas." Pankov accused Ukraine of aggravating the situation in Donbas, saying that under such conditions "Russia should take the people under its protection.”
The decision to recognise the Donetsk and Luhansk regions has caused a hue and cry in the West, where several countries including the US, UK and Germany rolled out new sanctions on Russia as a result the same day.
The recognition also effectively kills off the Minsk II process that was designed to bring an end to the fighting in the Donbas region. Implementing the Minsk II protocols has been focus of intense diplomatic efforts for most of this month, largely led by French President Emmanuel Macron.
The combination of the death of the Minsk II agreement as a possible solution to the current crisis and the permission Putin now has to use military force takes the stand-off between East and West over Ukraine into a new and darker phase.
In an ominous sign that attempts to find a diplomatic solution were running out of road, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced that he was cancelling a planned meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov scheduled for February 25, after characterising the appearance of Russian peacekeepers in Donbas as an “invasion” during comments made on February 22.
At the same time, US President Joe Biden turned down an invitation brokered by French President Emmanuel Macron to meet Putin for the fourth time to resume talks.
"Now that we see the invasion is beginning and Russia has made clear its wholesale rejection of diplomacy, it does not make sense to go forward with that meeting at this time," Blinken told reporters after a meeting with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba in Washington.
Blinken said he was still committed to diplomacy "if Moscow's approach changes" and would do anything he could "to avert an even worse-case scenario, an all-out assault on all of Ukraine, including its capital."
"But we will not allow Russia to claim the pretence of diplomacy at the same time it accelerates its march down the path of conflict and war," he added as cited by Reuters.
Kuleba was even more outspoken at the same meeting and said: “The time to hit Russia’s economy with sanctions is now, and to hit it hard.”
Kuleba called on the international community to stand together in the face of Russian aggression and to meet any escalation by Russia with an equal escalation in sanctions. “This must be the rule from now,” he said.
Ukraine’s foreign minister added that Kyiv understands that it is on its own should Russia attack. “The only guarantor of Ukraine’s security is Ukraine’s military,” continuing that “plan A is to try and resolve the crisis by diplomatic means and plan B is to fight for every inch of our country until we win.”
With the changes in the diplomatic landscape of the last two days one possible scenario has become that Putin is offering Ukraine a simple choice: declare neutrality or face a debilitating war with Russia, as the other diplomatic routes seem to have been closed down by Putin’s decision.
The European Union, reacting to the Federation Council vote, called on Moscow to reverse its decision to recognise self-proclaimed entities in the occupied territories of Donetsk and Luhansk regions, to withdraw troops from Ukraine's borders, and to comply with international law and its international commitments.
The EU’s High Representative said in a statement the recognition of the two republics’ autonomy was an “illegal act” that “undermines Ukraine’s sovereignty and independence and is a severe breach of international law and international agreements, including the UN Charter, Helsinki Final Act, Paris Charter and Budapest Memorandum.”
“As a signatory of the Minsk agreements, Russia has a clear and direct responsibility to work to find a peaceful settlement of the conflict in line with these principles. With the decision to recognise the non-government controlled regions of eastern Ukraine as “independent states”, Russia is clearly violating the Minsk agreements, which stipulate the full return of these areas to the control of the Ukrainian government,” the EU said.
“We urge Russia, as a party to the conflict, to reverse the recognition [of pseudo-republics in certain areas of Donetsk and Luhansk region], uphold its commitments, abide by international law and return to the discussions within the Normandy format and the Trilateral Contact Group. We call on other States not to follow Russia’s illegal decision to recognise this proclaimed independence,” reads the document.