Putin recognizes separatist eastern Ukrainian regions

MOSCOW (AP) – Russian President President Vladimir Putin has recognized the independence of separatist regions in eastern Ukraine — a move that will severely ratchet up tensions with the West amid fears that his country could invade Ukraine at any moment and use skirmishes as a pretext for an attack.

Russian President Vladimir Putin convened top officials to consider recognizing the independence of Russia-backed separatist regions in eastern Ukraine. Putin’s announcement comes after a meeting of the presidential Security Council and paves the way for Russia to openly send troops and weapons to the long-running conflict pitting Ukrainian forces against Moscow-backed rebels.

A 2015 peace deal ended large-scale fighting, but violence has simmered and has seen a spike in recent weeks amid the wider crisis.

Putin’s statement follows televised statements by separatist leaders. They pleaded with Putin to recognize them as independent states and sign friendship treaties envisaging military aid to protect them from what they described as the ongoing Ukrainian military offensive.

Ukrainian authorities deny launching an offensive.