VLADIMIR Putin has decided to recognise the independence of two breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine in a step that will further inflame a tense standoff with the West and Kyiv.
The Russian president has confirmed to the French and German leaders he intends to sign a decree recognising the Donetsk and Luhansk areas as independent states.
The Kremlin leader has been warned the EU is likely to impose sanctions if he follows through with the decree.
Moscow's move is also likely to torpedo a last-minute bid for a summit to prevent Russia from invading Ukraine.
"If there is annexation, there will be sanctions, and if there is recognition, I will put the sanctions on the table and the ministers will decide," the EU's foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said after a meeting of the bloc's foreign ministers.
Recognition of the rebel-held areas could provide a pretext for Russian troops to cross the border into those areas.
It comes after Putin held a dramatic session of his Security Council that was broadcast on television after the heads of two self-proclaimed republics in eastern Ukraine appealed to the Kremlin leader to recognise their independence.
"A decision will be taken today," Putin said.
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If Putin does recognise the Russian-controlled territories as independent states – which broke away from Kyiv's control in 2014 – it would scupper the existing peace agreement and possibly trigger fresh sanctions from the West.
During the meeting today, the leader's top advisers delivered speeches in favour of the move at an unscheduled Kremlin security council meeting.
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“We’ve been negotiating for eight years. We’re at a dead end,” Putin told his aides.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz condemned Putin's remarks that Russia could recognise two Kremlin-backed breakaway Ukrainian regions as independent, his office said on Monday.
His office said in a statement that he also told Putin during a phone call that any such move would amount to a "one-sided breach" of the Minsk agreements designed to end a separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine.
Scholz also urged Putin to pull Russian troops from Ukraine's border and deescalate the situation in eastern Ukraine.
The chancellor said he would consult with Ukrainian and French leaders about the situation in Ukraine.
According to US intelligence, Russia has now massed a force of between 169,000-190,000 troops in the region, including pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine, and could invade within days.
Recognition of the rebel-held areas in the east could provide a pretext for Russian troops to cross the border into those areas.
Russia denies any plan to attack its neighbour but has threatened unspecified "military-technical" action unless it receives sweeping security guarantees, including a promise that Ukraine will never join NATO.
Recognition by Moscow of the rebel regions' independence would further narrow the diplomatic options to avoid war, since it would be an explicit rejection of a seven-year-old ceasefire mediated by France and Germany, still touted as the framework for any future negotiations on the wider crisis.
It comes as Russia has moved 'Terminator' tanks to just two miles from the Ukrainian border, new video shows.
The move is the latest firepower being massed by Putin and it comes as the US has warned "tens of thousands" could die in the days following an invasion.
Footage shows convoys of Russian military hardware, including missiles and tanks, being moved to the Belgorod border region.
Terminator tanks, which are bristling with weapons and designed for fighting in cities, are seen in a video for the first time heading towards the border on a train.
They are capable of hitting lightly-armoured enemy vehicles, other tanks and even helicopters and low-flying aircraft.
The short-range all-weather Tor air defence system was visible, while a Russian mobile military hospital is seen in Shebekino, near the frontier.
Meanwhile, new satellite images are said to show Russian battle groups heading to the border and Nato was warned cities across Ukraine could be blitzed in the "imminent" attack.
It comes as:
- Boris Johnson warns the Russian invasion of Ukraine would "biggest war since 1945"
- Videos continue to show Russian armour moving – with a new clip showing 200 tanks on the march near Ukraine
- Russia was said to have begun "Operation Z" – as tanks marked with the symbol moved close to Ukraine
- Putin could drop his 44 ton Father of All Bombs weapon in a blitz of Ukraine
- It was warned the UK is fighting with "one hand tied" against a resurgent Russia and China
- Britain has moved its embassy in Kyiv some 336 miles away as the tensions rage
- Pro-Russian rebels ordered an evacuation from the Donbas – accusing Ukraine of planning an attack
US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said Moscow's decision to keep the force "indefinitely" made him more worried than ever.
He said: "Everything we are seeing suggests that this is dead serious, that we are on the brink of an invasion.
"Until the tanks are actually rolling, and the planes are flying, we will use every opportunity and every minute we have to see if diplomacy can still dissuade President Putin from carrying this forward."
French President Emmanuel Macron pleaded for peace in a two-hour phone call with Mr Putin last night.
Early today Mr Macron's office said Putin and US President Joe Biden had agreed in principle to a summit on the crisis, but it "can only be held if Russia does not invade Ukraine".
But the Kremlin blamed Kyiv for the escalating crisis, with a chilling statement on "provocations of the Ukrainian security forces" after fresh clashes in the disputed Donbas region.
Nato fears Putin will use alleged attacks in Russian-speaking areas as an excuse for a "fully fledged" assault and occupation of the whole country.
Boris Johnson later spoke to Mr Macron and discussed his call with Putin.
Downing Street said they "underscored the need for President Putin to step back from his current threats" and "agreed next week would be crucial for diplomacy."
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