The UN Security Council will hold an emergency meeting Monday night after Russian President Vladimir Putin recognised the independence of separatist regions in eastern Ukraine and ordered Russian troops to “maintain the peace” there.

The announcement came as Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy told his nation “we are not afraid of anyone” in response to the Russian move.

The UN Security Council meeting is being organised at the request of Ukraine, the United States and six other countries.

Russia, which currently holds the rotating council presidency, has scheduled it for 9pm New York time (2.00am Tuesday GMT). It has not yet been determined if the meeting will be open or closed.

Displaced citizens sit on camp beds in large sporting hall.
Displaced civilians from the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, the territory controlled by pro-Russia separatist governments in eastern Ukraine, rest in a sport hall in Taganrog, Russia (AP Photo)

Ukrainian UN Ambassador Sergiy Kyslytsya said in a letter to his Russian counterpart that Kyiv is requesting the urgent meeting because Mr Putin’s actions violate Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, the UN Charter and a 2014 UN General Assembly resolution.

It is virtually certain the Security Council will not take any action or issue any statement because Russia has veto power.

Earlier on Monday, Putin ordered forces to “maintain peace” in separatist regions of eastern Ukraine, hours after the Kremlin recognised the area’s independence. The announcement raised fears that an invasion was imminent, if not already underway.

The Kremlin decree, spelled out in an order signed by Mr Putin, left unclear when, or even whether, troops would enter Ukraine. But it brought swift promises of new sanctions from the UK, US and other Western nations and underscored the steep challenges they face in staving off a military conflict they have portrayed as near-inevitable.

The UK, US and other nations scrambled to respond, calling for an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council on Monday night.

Britain’s Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said the UK will announce new sanctions against Russia on Tuesday “in response to their breach of international law and attack on Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity”.

A woman with her children crosses a checkpoint from territory controlled by Russia-backed separatists to the territory controlled by Ukrainian forces in Novotroitske, eastern Ukraine
A woman with her children crosses a checkpoint from territory controlled by Russia-backed separatists to the territory controlled by Ukrainian forces in Novotroitske, eastern Ukraine (AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka)

The White House issued an executive order to restrict investment and trade in the separatist regions, and additional measures — likely sanctions — were to be announced Tuesday. Those sanctions are independent of what Washington has prepared in the event of a Russian invasion, according to a senior administration official who briefed reporters on the condition of anonymity.

The developments came amid a spike in skirmishes in the eastern regions that Western powers believe Russia could use as a pretext for an attack on the Western-looking democracy that has defied Moscow’s attempts to pull it back into its orbit.

Mr Putin justified his decision in a far-reaching, pre-recorded speech blaming Nato for the current crisis and calling the US-led alliance an existential threat to Russia. Sweeping through more than a century of history, he painted today’s Ukraine as a modern construct that is inextricably linked to Russia. He charged that Ukraine had inherited Russia’s historic lands and after the Soviet collapse was used by the West to contain Russia.

“I consider it necessary to take a long-overdue decision: To immediately recognise the independence and sovereignty of Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic,” Mr Putin said.

Afterward he signed decrees recognising the Donetsk and Luhansk regions’ independence, eight years after fighting erupted between Russia-backed separatists and Ukrainian forces, and called on politicians to approve measures paving the way for military support.

Ukrainian border guard officers patrol the Ukrainian-Belarusian state border at a checkpoint in Novi Yarylovychi, Ukraine
Ukrainian border guard officers patrol the Ukrainian-Belarusian state border at a checkpoint in Novi Yarylovychi, Ukraine (AP Photo/Oleksandr Ratushniak)

Until now, Ukraine and the West have accused Russia of supporting the separatists, but Moscow has denied that, saying that Russians who fought there were volunteers.

At an earlier meeting of Mr Putin’s Security Council, a stream of top officials argued for recognising the regions’ independence. At one point, one slipped up and said he favoured including them as part of Russian territory — but Mr Putin quickly corrected him.

Recognising the separatist regions’ independence is likely to be popular in Russia, where many share Mr Putin’s worldview. Russian state media released images of people in Donetsk launching fireworks, waving large Russian flags and playing Russia’s national anthem.

Ukrainians in Kyiv, meanwhile, bristled at the move.

“Why should Russia recognise (the rebel-held regions)? If neighbours come to you and say, ‘This room will be ours,’ would you care about their opinion or not? It’s your flat, and it will be always your flat,” said Maria Levchyshchyna, a 48-year-old painter in the Ukrainian capital.

“Let them recognise whatever they want. But in my view, it can also provoke a war, because normal people will fight for their country.”

With an estimated 150,000 Russian troops massed on three sides of Ukraine, the US has warned that Moscow has already decided to invade. Still, Mr Biden and Mr Putin tentatively agreed to a meeting brokered by French President Emmanuel Macron in a last-ditch effort to avoid war.

If Russia moves in, the meeting will be off, but the prospect of a face-to-face summit resuscitated hopes in diplomacy to prevent a conflict that could cause massive casualties and huge economic damage across Europe, which is heavily dependent on Russian energy.

Russia says it wants Western guarantees that Nato will not allow Ukraine and other former Soviet countries to join as members — and Mr Putin said Monday that a simple moratorium on Ukraine’s accession would not be enough. Moscow has also demanded the alliance halt weapons deployments to Ukraine and roll back its forces from Eastern Europe — demands flatly rejected by the West.

Mr Macron’s office said both leaders had “accepted the principle of such a summit,” to be followed by a broader meeting that would include other “relevant stakeholders to discuss security and strategic stability in Europe”.

US national security adviser Jake Sullivan, meanwhile, said the administration has always been ready to talk to avert a war — but was also prepared to respond to any attack.