Along with many other concerns, Russian President Vladimir Putin's quickly implemented decision to recognize the separatist entities Moscow supports in eastern Ukraine as independent states on February 21 immediately raised this question: What, exactly, has Moscow recognized?
When the Russia-backed separatists seized swaths of land in the region known as the Donbas in 2014, they drafted unrecognized "constitutions" that claimed dominion over the entire territory of Ukraine's Luhansk and Donetsk provinces, or oblasts, a total of more than 53,200 square kilometers.
Following months of intense fighting and a February 2015 cease-fire deal that failed to end the war between Kyiv and the Russia-backed forces, the two sides were separated by a line of contact that left the Ukrainian military in control of about two-thirds of that territory, including the important Azov Sea port of Mariupol. The separatists hold the other third, including the two provincial capitals, Donetsk and Luhansk.
The executive orders that Putin issued on February 21 did not specify whether Russia considered the separatist entities to exist only within the bounds of the territory they control or on the territory they claim, as well. And Russian officials spent the next day offering vague and sometimes contradictory statements on which path Putin had chosen.
The difference could be crucial, said analyst Konstantin Skorkin of the Moscow Carnegie Center, last week when the Russian legislature was discussing recognition.
"[The separatists] could restart their fight to establish their territorial integrity," he said. "This could mean a spike in tensions and the resumption of military activity on the basis of their territorial claims, which could include Russian forces in one way or another."
Late on February 22, however, Putin clarified that his recognition of the separatists did, in fact, include their territorial claims, potentially throwing open the door to further military conflict with Ukraine.
"We recognized them, which means all their founding documents and constitutions, which say that their borders coincide with the Luhansk and Donetsk regions when they were part of Ukraine," Putin said in Moscow. "But I stress that we hope very much that these issues can still be settled by peaceful negotiations, although for the time being it is out of the question because combat activities are going on there, and the situation is deteriorating."
Warnings Of A Massive Invasion
Kyiv has insisted it has carried out no military activity in the Donbas region and that all shelling along the line of contact has come from the Russia-backed separatist forces. Russia has up to 190,000 troops poised near its borders with Ukraine and in the Russian-occupied Ukrainian region of Crimea, according to U.S. estimates, prompting Kyiv and Western governments to warn that a massive invasion could be imminent.
Around the time Putin spoke, the Federation Council, the upper chamber of Russia's legislature, hastily approved Putin's request to deploy military forces outside of Russia. There has been compelling evidence of Russia's military presence inside Ukraine for many years, despite Moscow's denials that it is a party to the conflict. The Federation Council's decision paves the way for the open deployment of Russian forces inside the territory controlled by the separatists, as well as in other parts of Ukraine.
Before the vote, Deputy Defense Minister Nikolai Pankov told lawmakers without evidence that "the Ukrainian leadership has taken the path of violence and bloodshed."
"On the borders of the DNR and the LNR," Pankov said, using the abbreviations by which the separatist formations are commonly known, "Ukraine has built up a 60,000-strong military group, including heavy armor, rocket systems, and multiple-launch systems."
Even before Putin's intentions were clear, representatives of the separatist formations in Ukraine began pressing their claim for the entire territory.
In an interview with Russian state television, the head of the separatists in Donetsk, Denis Pushilin said the two formations "have their borders within the Donetsk and Luhansk regions."
"Time will tell what is to be done next," he added.
A leading separatist in Luhansk, Dmitry Khoroshilov, told journalists on February 22 that the so-called "people's republic" that the separatists have proclaimed includes the entire pre-war Luhansk Oblast, parts of which are "occupied by Ukrainian forces."
"I think we will urge Ukraine to withdraw its forces voluntarily," he said, according to Russian state news agency RIA Novosti, suggesting that anti-Kyiv forces would seek to seize control of the entire province if that doesn't happen.
Another separatist leader in Luhansk, Rodion Miroshnik, said the two separatist groups have "every right, formal and informal" to push Russia and Ukraine to accept the borders established in the groups' "constitutions."
Shortly before Putin's comments, the separatists formally asked Kyiv to withdraw its military forces from the territory of the two regions that remains under Ukraine's control.
Throughout the day on February 22, Russian officials seemed uncertain about Putin's intentions and the implications of the latest developments.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the two formations had been recognized "in those borders within which they were proclaimed."
When asked specifically if the recognized structures included Mariupol, Peskov said: "I have nothing to add. In those borders within which they exist and were proclaimed. And were proclaimed and exist."
That sounds highly contradictory, because the borders the separatists have proclaimed -- the borders of the Donetsk and Luhansk provinces -- lie far beyond the existing borders of the territory the control.
Peskov's remarks could have indicated that Moscow was sowing confusion deliberately. Later the same day, comments from Foreign Ministry spokesman Maria Zakharova suggested that Russia wanted to keep its options open -- and keep the threat of additional territorial claims in reserve.
There is "nothing surprising in the fact that there are sovereign countries...whose borders are not decided or simply not determined -- plenty of them," she said, adding: "So this is a question for the future, [a question] that will be resolved."
Deputy Foreign Minister Andrei Rudenko was also enigmatic in his comments.
"Russia recognizes the DNR and the LNR inside the borders within which the leadership of the DNR and the LNR realize their authority and jurisdiction," Rudenko said.
Prominent pro-Kremlin Russian television commentator Vladimir Solovyov, however, wrote on Telegram that the Donetsk separatists "need access to the Sea of Azov and control over the port of Mariupol."
The separatist entities “will be recognized within the borders of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts at the beginning of 2014," he predicted.
Economist and blogger Khazbi Budunov wrote on Facebook before Putin's remarks that, if Russia's recognition extended to the separatist-claimed parts of the two Ukrainian regions, it was tantamount to "an attack by Russia." He called the uncertainty "the main intrigue of the hour."
Political analyst Aleksandr Baunov, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center, wrote that Russian recognition of the separatists' territorial claims would mean "the military pressure on Ukraine -- and through it, on the West -- is not letting up."
Liberal former State Duma Deputy Ilya Ponomaryov wrote that, if Moscow's recognition embraced the separatists' additional territorial claims, "it would be a full-on assault and must be treated as such."