Russian recognition of the independence of separatist regions in eastern Ukraine is a move that will severely ratchet up tensions with the West amid fears of a Russian invasion.

The Kremlin says Putin announced his decision in phone calls to the leaders of Germany and France, who voiced disappointment and was later shown on state television signing the decree.

The European Union’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said the bloc will move to impose sanctions on Russia if Putin recognizes Ukraine’s separatist territories as independent.

Reuters says that after Putin signed the decree, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson told Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy the move made the Minsk process -- a set of agreements designed to end a separatist war by Russian speakers in eastern Ukraine – unworkable.

Britain has reportedly prepared sanctions against Russia, and Tuesday’s sanctions may not be the full extent of the response, with further sanctions in reserve if Putin subsequently decides to invade.

Reuters notes that Russian recognition of the independence of Donetsk and Lugansk regions could pave the way for Moscow to send military forces into the separatist regions openly, using the argument that it is intervening as an ally to protect them against Ukraine.

A Russian parliament member and former Donetsk political leader, Alexander Borodai, told Reuters last month that the separatists would then look to Russia to help them wrest control of parts of the Donetsk and Lugansk regions still under the control of Ukrainian forces.  If that happened, it could lead to open military conflict between Russia and Ukraine.

Russian recognition effectively kills off the 2014-15 Minsk peace agreements that, although still unimplemented, have until now been seen by all sides, including Moscow, as the best chance for a solution.  The accords call for a large degree of autonomy for the two regions inside Ukraine.

Western governments have been lining up for months to warn Moscow that any movement of military forces across the Ukrainian border would draw a strong response, including stringent financial sanctions.

Russian-backed separatists in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions - collectively known as the Donbass - broke away from Ukrainian government control in 2014 and proclaimed themselves independent “people's republics”, until now unrecognized.  Since then, Ukraine says about 15,000 people have been killed in fighting.  Russia denies being a party to the conflict but has backed the separatists in numerous ways, including through covert military support, financial aid, supplies of COVID-19 vaccines and the issue of at least 800,000 Russian passports to residents.  Moscow has always denied planning to invade Ukraine.