By Andrew Osborn and Mark Trevelyan
MOSCOW – Seated at a large white table in an echoing Kremlin hall, 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 recognise 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.
His special representative on Ukraine, Dmitry Kozak, said Kyiv and the West had no interest in implementing a 2015 peace deal to end the conflict in eastern Ukraine, where pro-Russian separatists have been fighting Ukrainian government forces for the past eight years.
The head of the FSB security service, Alexander Bortnikov, told Putin the security situation in the two breakaway regions was deteriorating, and that nearly 70,000 people had so far fled to Russia.
Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu accused Ukraine of stepping up shelling of the separatist regions – which Kyiv has strongly denied – and said some residents had been left without gas or water.
Much was riding on the president’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.
SHOW OF AUTHORITY
At one point he intervened to emphasise 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 recognise their independence or not.”
Naryshkin: “Yes, I support the proposal to recognise 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.
(Reporting by Andrew Osborn in Moscow and Mark Trevelyan in London; Editing by Alex Richardson)