In piece of Kremlin theatre, Putin weighs fateful decision on Ukraine

Joint military drills of the armed forces of Russia and Belarus in the Brest Region
Troops take part in the joint military drills of the armed forces of Russia and Belarus at a firing range in the Brest Region, Belarus February 19, 2022. Vadim Yakubyonok/Belta/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS – THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. MANDATORY CREDIT. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES.

Seated at a large white table in an echoing Kremlin hall, Russian President Vladimir Putin summoned his top security officials one by one on Monday to give him their advice at a potential turning point in the crisis around Ukraine.

In a lengthy meeting of his Security Council, broadcast on state television in what a presenter called “unprecedented footage”, Putin cross-examined ministers and spy chiefs on the question of whether to recognize the two breakaway Donbass regions of eastern Ukraine as independent states.

One after another, they walked to a white lectern in the column-lined hall to paint a relentlessly grim picture of the situation in Donbass.

Looking pale and tired, Putin drummed with his fingers from time to time as he listened.

Meanwhile, in Washington, President Joe Biden is meeting his national security team on Monday about Russia and Ukraine, a White House official said. It’s believed that Russian recognition of Donbass as independent states would serve as a reason for Moscow to openly send in troops.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, the White House official made the comments after a Reuters eyewitness saw Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and General Mark Milley, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, arrive at the White House on the U.S. Presidents Day federal holiday.

Much was riding on Putin’s decision. Recognition of the separatist regions could provide Russia with a pretext to openly send its military forces into the Donbass and justify that by arguing that it was protecting residents there from Ukraine.

It would also effectively kill off the Minsk peace agreements that all sides, including Russia, have until now called the only possible route out of the crisis.

But Putin was taking his time.

At one point he intervened to emphasize that he had not discussed in advance what the officials were going to tell him, as if to dispel the impression that the proceedings had been choreographed.

In reality, the televised meeting appeared calculated to convey the impression of a leader carefully arriving at an important decision after weighing all the evidence from his subordinates.

It also gave Putin the chance to demonstrate his authority over the most powerful people in the land, putting them in their place if they slipped up.

He jumped in to chastise foreign intelligence chief Sergei Naryshkin when the latter said he “will support” recognition of the Donbass regions.

“Will support, or do support? Tell me straight, Sergei Yevgenievich,” Putin said.

When Naryshkin then said he supported the breakaway regions becoming part of Russia, Putin upbraided him again: “We’re not talking about that… We’re talking about whether to recognize their independence or not.”

Naryshkin: “Yes, I support the proposal to recognize their independence.”

Putin: “Ok, please sit down, thank you.”

With all the reports delivered, all eyes turned to Putin to pronounce his verdict – but he was not yet ready to end the suspense.

“A decision will be taken today,” he said – and with that, the cameras stopped rolling.