Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday recognized the Russian-speaking regions of Donetsk and Luhansk in eastern Ukraine as independent states, signing documents declaring them no longer part of Ukraine. Hours earlier, the separatist leaders of the regions made a video appeal for the independence declaration.
The Donetsk and Luhansk regions — collectively known as the Donbas — are in eastern Ukraine, near the border with Russia. The region comprises both Kyiv-controlled parts as well as separatist-controlled areas. Its main industries are coal mining and steel production.
Most of the 3.6 million people living in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions speak Russian, a result of a migration of Russian workers to the regions after World War II, during the Soviet era. Moscow has in recent years issued more than 720,000 Russian passports to roughly one-fifth of the region's population, according to The Associated Press.
Pro-Russian separatists in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions took over government buildings in 2014 and proclaimed the regions as independent "people's republics." The move followed Russia's annexation of Crimea from Ukraine.
Since 2014, more than 14,000 people have been killed in fighting in the Donbas region between pro-Russian separatists and Ukrainian forces. Ukraine and the West accuse Russia of backing the separatists both militarily and financially, a charge Moscow denies.
Amid the fighting, a Malaysian airliner was shot down over eastern Ukraine in 2014, killing all 298 people on board. International investigators concluded the missile was supplied by Russia and fired from an area controlled by pro-Russian separatists. Russia has denied involvement.
After separatists in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions took power in 2014, they held a vote to declare independence. Until now, no country recognized their bid. On Monday, Putin announced the independence of the regions after meeting with the Russian Security Council. His announcement followed a video appeal by the regions' separatist leaders for the recognition of independence.
Each of the regions has its own self-proclaimed president. In a vote disputed by Kyiv, Denis Pushilin was elected in 2018 to lead the so-called Donetsk People's Republic, while Leonid Pasechnik is the leader of the Luhansk separatist region.
Minsk peace process
Russia's recognition of the regions effectively ends the Minsk peace agreements, which were never fully implemented. The agreements, signed in 2014 and 2015, had called for a large amount of autonomy for the two regions inside Ukraine.
Other breakaway regions
Russia has previously recognized the independence of two Georgian breakaway regions — Abkhazia and South Ossetia — after a brief war with Georgia in 2008. Russia has since stationed troops in those regions and offered Russian citizenship to their populations.
Some information in this report came from The Associated Press, Reuters and Agence France-Presse.