Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a joint news conference with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in Moscow, Russia February 15, 2022.

Sergey Guneev | Sputnik | via Reuters

WASHINGTON – Russian President Vladimir Putin is set to recognize the independence of two breakaway regions of Ukraine, the Kremlin said Monday, a move that could be a significant step toward possible invasion.

The Kremlin said that Putin discussed his decision with French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz on Monday. Putin is expected to sign a formal decree “in the near future.”

The announcement to recognize the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic as independent states follows a national security meeting in which top Russian officials publicly discussed recognizing the independence of the two enclaves.

The breakaway areas in the Donbas have been the site of a long-running armed standoff between Ukrainian forces and Russia-backed rebels.

President Biden has warned Putin that the U.S. and its allies are willing to impose swift and severe costs on Russia.

Courtesy: The White House

Over the weekend, President Joe Biden accepted a meeting with Putin “in principle,” on the condition that Russia does not invade Ukraine.

Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, said Sunday evening that the summit would happen following a meeting between Secretary of State Antony Blinken and his Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. That meeting is scheduled for later this week.

Earlier on Monday, Biden convened the National Security Council to discuss the rapidly deteriorating security situation on Ukraine’s borders, the second meeting in two days, administration officials confirmed to NBC News.

White House officials also confirmed to NBC News that the U.S. has discussed plans with the Ukrainian government to relocate President Volodymyr Zelenskyy from Kyiv should Russian forces proceed with an advance.

Zelenskyy would move to Lviv in western Ukraine, a city that is approximately 50 miles from the Polish border, the people familiar with the plans said.

Monday’s meeting in the Situation Room of the White House follows recent days of stark warnings from U.S. and European allies. On Friday, Biden said Putin would carry out an attack on Ukraine “in the coming days.”

The Biden administration has previously declined to predict Putin’s playbook even as Russia has deployed nearly half of its military to Ukraine’s borders. The increased military presence mimics Russian moves ahead of its 2014 illegal annexation of Crimea, a peninsula on the Black Sea, which sparked international uproar and triggered sanctions against Moscow.

The Kremlin has repeatedly denied that the more than 190,000 Russian troops outfitted with advanced military equipment along Ukraine’s borders are preparing for an invasion. 

Biden’s top diplomat said Sunday that there is still time for Putin to choose diplomacy.

“Until the tanks are rolling and the planes are in the air we are going to try everything we possibly can to get President Putin to reverse the decision we believe he’s made,” Blinken said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

“Until the last minute, there is still an option for him to pull back,” he added.

‘It means carnage. It means humanitarian disaster’

T-72B3 Main Battle Tanks of Russian Army take part in a military drill in St. Petersburg, Russia on February 14, 2022.

Russian Defense Ministry | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

Last week, in a dramatic appearance at the United Nations, Blinken shared a grim assessment of what Russian forces could do to Ukraine if the Kremlin suddenly launched an attack.

“Russian missiles and bombs will drop across Ukraine. Communications will be jammed, cyberattacks will shut down key Ukrainian institutions. After that, Russian tanks and soldiers will advance on key targets that have already been identified and mapped out in detailed plans,” Blinken told members of the U.N. Security Council.

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and U.S. Army Gen. Mark Milley painted an equally grim picture of what could lie ahead for Ukraine, telling Pentagon reporters that Russia’s troop buildup was unlike anything he has seen during his four-decade military career.

He said the Russians have deployed air forces, naval forces, special forces, cyber electronic warfare, command and control, logistics engineers and other capabilities along Ukraine’s border.

“Given the type of forces that are arrayed, the ground maneuver forces, the artillery, the ballistic missiles, the air forces, all of it packaged together. If that was unleashed on Ukraine, it would be significant, very significant, and it would result in a significant amount of casualties,” Milley said on Jan. 28.

“It would be horrific,” he added.

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