Russian parliament to discuss recognising rebel-held east Ukraine as independent

FILE PHOTO: Russia's State Duma Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin is seen before President Vladimir Putin's annual state of the nation address to the Federal Assembly in Moscow, Russia March 1, 2018. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia's parliament will hold consultations next week on an idea to appeal to President Vladimir Putin to recognise two pro-Russian breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine as independent states, the chamber's speaker said on Friday.

Vyacheslav Volodin, the speaker of the State Duma, the lower house of parliament, made the announcement ahead of talks in Geneva on Friday between Russia's top diplomat and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken to discuss soaring tensions over Ukraine.

A Russian troop build-up near Ukraine has stirred worries among Western countries that a war could break out between the former Soviet neighbours, whose ties have been fraught since the annexation of Crimea by Moscow and the start of a Russia-backed insurgency in eastern Ukraine in 2014.

Formally recognising the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic and the Luhansk People's Republic in Donbass, eastern Ukraine, is seen as one potential step Putin could take if he fails to secure security guarantees he is seeking from the West.

The Kremlin reacted coolly to the parliamentary initiative on Friday. It said it was important to avoid steps that could increase tensions and cautioned against trying to score political points in a fragile situation.

Volodin, in a statement posted to his account on the Telegram messenger service, said a decision had been taken to further examine a draft parliamentary resolution submitted on Wednesday by 11 lawmakers -- including Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov -- which said that Russia needed to officially recognise the two regions as independent to safeguard their residents from external threats.

Volodin said that the ruling pro-Putin United Russia party was worried about the security of Russians living in the two breakaway areas. Moscow has handed out over 600,000 Russian passports to residents since 2014.

"The question submitted for our examination is a very serious and responsible one," said Volodin.

He said it would therefore be right for it to be discussed next week among the leaders of the main parties represented in parliament and then by the Duma's ruling council which decides on the chamber's timetable and workload.

"We see that (Ukrainian) President Zelenskiy is ignoring the Minsk (peace) agreements. NATO wants to occupy Ukraine. Both things can result in tragedy. We must not let this happen," said Volodin.

Zelenskiy has repeatedly said he is open to talks with Russia, while Western leaders have made clear there is no near-term prospect of Ukraine joining NATO.

(Reporting by Andrew Osborn; additional reporting by Dmitry Antonov; Editing by Tom Balmforth)

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