Russian President Vladimir Putin says he is considering recognizing the independence of two breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine, a step that could further escalate tensions between Moscow and the West.
He said Russia's Security Council would consider an appeal from the leaders of two breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine for Moscow to recognize them as independent.
Putin made the remarks during a long televised meeting of the council on Monday, shortly after leaders of the self-proclaimed People's Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk called on Moscow to recognize them as independent states.
The Russian president said he would reach a decision within hours on the separatist leaders' request, while several top Russian officials indicated they would back recognizing them as independent.
Dmitry Medvedev, the Security Council's deputy chairman, told the meeting it was "obvious" that Ukraine did not need the two regions, and that a majority of Russians would support their independence.
The meeting of the council came amid an uptick of violence in the long-running conflict between Ukrainian troops and pro-Russian forces which have escalated the tense situation created by the West's military buildup and Russia's flexing of muscles in response.
Donetsk and Luhansk -- collectively known as the Donbass -- were turned into self-proclaimed republics by ethnic Russians in 2014. That led to a bloody conflict between the government forces and armed separatists.
Ukraine, as well as the European Union and the United States, claim Russia has a hand in the conflict in Donbass, which has killed more than 14,000 people so far. Moscow denies the allegation.
The armed conflict began when a wave of protests in Ukraine overthrew a democratically-elected pro-Russia government and replaced it with a pro-West administration. The majority in those areas refused to endorse the new administration.
Putin further noted that it was clear Ukraine would not implement the Minsk peace process aimed at ending the conflict in the mainly Russian-speaking region between Ukrainian government forces and separatists.
"It is clear to everyone that (Ukraine) is not going to do anything on this Minsk package of measures... Russia has made and is still making efforts to peacefully resolve all the difficult and tragic elements in the development of events, but today we are where we are," he said.
The Russian president further warned that tensions with the West over Ukraine posed a looming threat to Moscow.
“The use of Ukraine as an instrument of confrontation with our country poses a serious, very big threat to us,” he said, adding that Moscow’s priority was “not confrontation, but security.”
Russia and the West are at odds over Ukraine. Western countries accuse Russia of preparing for an invasion of Ukraine by amassing 150,000 troops and armaments near the border with that country. Russia has rejected the claim, saying the military build-up is defensive in nature.
In a major step to de-escalate, Moscow announced last week that some of the troops deployed in areas bordering Ukraine would return to their bases. It also released footage showing tanks and armored vehicles being loaded onto railway flatcars. The US and its NATO allies, however, claim they have seen no significant withdrawal of Russian troops from Ukraine's border.
Putin has warned that the US is deliberately designing a scenario to lure Russia into a war over Ukraine, as the Kremlin has repeatedly reiterated that the expansion of the NATO military infrastructure in Ukraine constitutes a red line for Moscow and that any future expansion must exclude Ukraine and other former Soviet countries.
Separately on Monday, the Russian Defense Ministry said it has prevented Ukrainian military saboteurs from breaching the border from Ukraine.
The incident which took place in Russia’s southwestern Rostov region left five troops dead, it added.
Kiev has dismissed the allegation as “fake news.”
The latest development came hours after the Kremlin dashed hopes that top-level diplomacy aimed at easing the Ukraine crisis would be imminent, a day after Putin and his US counterpart Joe Biden had appeared to agree – in principle – to talks.