Russian lawmakers gave Putin another way to escalate tensions with Ukraine—just as some of Russia’s troops reportedly pull back from the border

February 15, 2022, 12:40 PM UTC

Russia’s parliament has overwhelmingly voted to ask President Vladimir Putin to formally recognize two breakaway “republics” in the Donbas region of southeastern Ukraine—a move that would drive a nail through the 2015 cease-fire deal between Ukraine and Russia.

It’s not clear what Putin will do next, but the Duma was deciding between two options: Ask him directly, as urged by the Communist opposition, or consult with the Foreign Ministry first, as proposed by the majority United Russia party. By 351 votes to 16, it chose the former route which, if the president follows through, would accelerate the abandonment of the Minsk agreements—the never fully implemented deals to stop fighting between Ukrainian and Russian-backed forces in Donbas.

This latest development comes at an extraordinarily tense moment, with Western intelligence agencies talking up the likelihood of a Russian invasion of Ukraine as soon as Wednesday.

Russia is currently sending mixed signals about its intentions. Moscow pleased the markets Tuesday by saying it would start withdrawing some of its troops from the Ukrainian border, but British officials say thousands of fresh troops are heading to the border, potentially taking the total there to more than 150,000.

So Putin’s response to the Duma vote would indicate whether he wants an escalation or de-escalation of the crisis. Ukrainian Finance Minister Serhiy Marchenko on Tuesday told the BBC that Putin’s ratification of the Duma resolution—which is otherwise nonbinding—would effectively end peace talks between the countries.

So far, no real country has recognized the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics, which declared independence from Ukraine in 2014 following the revolution that ousted pro-Russian Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych. (The so-called Autonomous Republic of Crimea also declared its independence at the time, before voting in an illegal referendum to be annexed by Russia.)

The only external entity to recognize the Donbas republics is South Ossetia, a pro-Russian enclave in Georgia that has been occupied by the Russian military since a 2008 war between the countries. On that occasion, Russia invaded Georgia under the pretext of defending South Ossetian separatists against Georgian aggression. Russia largely withdrew, leaving South Ossetia one of several “frozen conflicts” on its borders. The Duma then voted to formally recognize South Ossetian independence.

There are parallels to be drawn here, regarding the perceived need for Russia to defend pro-Russians. In December, Putin claimed Russian speakers in Donbas were being discriminated against, commenting: “It certainly looks like genocide.”

“Kyiv does not comply with the Minsk agreements. Our citizens and compatriots living in Donbas need help and support,” Duma Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin said on Telegram after the vote Tuesday. “In this regard, [Duma lawmakers] believe the recognition of the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics will create grounds for guaranteeing the security and protection of their inhabitants from external threats.”

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