Putin to the West: ‘It is not us who threaten anyone’

International
Vladimir Putin

Russian President Vladimir Putin gestures while speaking during his annual news conference in Moscow, Russia, Thursday, Dec. 23, 2021. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

MOSCOW (AP) — Russian President Vladimir Putin urged the West on Thursday to “immediately” meet Russia’s demand for security guarantees precluding NATO’s expansion to Ukraine, saying the U.S. is “on the threshold of our home.”

Speaking during a marathon annual news conference, the Russian leader welcomed talks with the U.S., which he said are set to start in Geneva next month, as a “positive” move, but warned that Moscow expects the discussion to produce quick results.

“We have clearly and precisely let them know that any further NATO expansion eastward is unacceptable,” Putin said.

Last week, Moscow submitted draft security documents demanding that NATO deny membership to Ukraine and other former Soviet countries and roll back the alliance’s military deployments in Central and Eastern Europe. A key principle of the alliance is that membership is open to any qualifying country.

“Is it us who are putting missiles near the U.S. borders?” Putin said angrily. “No, it’s the U.S. who came to our home with its missiles, it’s already on the threshold of our home. Is it some excessive demand not to place any strike weapons systems near our home?”

Moscow presented its demand amid soaring tensions over a Russian troop buildup near Ukraine that has stoked fears of a possible invasion. U.S. President Joe Biden warned Putin in a video call earlier this month that Russia will face “severe consequences” if it attacks Ukraine.

Russia has denied plans to launch an attack but has described a NATO expansion and weapons deployment in Ukraine as a “red line.”

Asked Thursday if he could provide a guarantee that Russia will not invade Ukraine, Putin snapped in response: “It’s you who must give us guarantees and give them immediately, now, and not have idle talk about it for decades.”

“How would the Americans respond if we put our missiles on the U.S. borders with Canada or Mexico?” he exclaimed.

The U.S. and its allies have said they won’t give Russia the kind of guarantee on Ukraine that Putin wants. American officials are conferring with European allies in advance of the Geneva talks.

The Russian leader charged during his news conference that the West had “swindled, blatantly cheated” Moscow by offering verbal pledges in the 1990s not to expand NATO’s presence east and then enlarging to incorporate former Soviet bloc countries in Central and Eastern Europe and the ex-Soviet republics in the Baltics.

“They said they wouldn’t expand, and then they did expand,” he said. “They said there would be equal guarantees for all, but there is no equal security. It seems to me sometimes that we live in different worlds.”

Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic joined NATO in 1999, followed in 2004 by Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia and the former Soviet republics of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. In subsequent years, Albania, Croatia, Montenegro and North Macedonia also joined, bringing NATO’s membership to 30 nations.

“It’s not us who threaten anyone,” Putin said. “Is it us who came to the U.S. or British borders or somewhere else? No, they have come to us, and now they say that Ukraine will be in NATO. Or they will just put bases and strike weapons there on a bilateral basis.”

He accused the West of trying to make Ukraine “anti-Russia, constantly beefed up with modern weapons and brainwashing the population.”

Russia can’t keep living in anticipation of looming security threats posed by possible deployment of Western weapons in Ukraine, Putin said.

“Should Russia live constantly looking back at what’s going on and what new weapon systems are put there?” he exclaimed. “We need to think about ensuring our security.”

He argued that Western weapons could encourage hawkish forces in Ukraine to attempt to regain control over Russia-backed separatist regions by force and even try to reclaim Crimea, which Russia annexed from Ukraine in 2014.

The Russian leader claimed that Western expressions of concern about an alleged Russian invasion could be a prelude to a possible attempt by Ukraine to launch an offensive against the rebels in the east following two botched attempts in the past.

“There is an impression that they are preparing a third military operation and warning us not to meddle,” he said.

Ukrainian officials have denied any intention to launch an offensive against the separatists. Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Oleg Nikolenko said Thursday that Putin’s claim about Kyiv preparing a military operation is untrue.

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said that “the only aggression at the border of Russia and Ukraine is the military buildup by the Russians and the bellicose rhetoric from the leader of Russia.”

British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss also insisted that “NATO is a defensive alliance and Ukraine continues to show commendable restraint in the face of Russian provocation and aggression.”

“Any Russian incursion would be a massive strategic mistake and would be met with strength, including coordinated sanctions with our allies to impose a severe cost on Russia’s interests and economy,” Truss said.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken discussed the situation around Ukraine with Truss and they “agreed on the importance of reinforcing coordinated support amongst allies and partners to impose consequences and costs for further Russian aggression towards Ukraine,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said.

A senior White House official speaking on condition of anonymity said Thursday the U.S. was prepared to increase support to Ukraine to help it defend its territory and would reassure NATO allies of any change in posture in addition to economic sanctions if Russia invades its neighbor.

Shortly after annexing the Crimea, Moscow cast its support behind a separatist rebellion in Ukraine’s east. The fighting over more than seven years has killed more than 14,000 people and devastated Ukraine’s industrial heartland, known as the Donbas.

Putin’s news conference lasted nearly four hours and also covered a range of domestic issues. He dismissed criticism of Russia designating scores of critical media and activists as “foreign agents,” a pejorative label that entails additional government scrutiny and is intended to undermine the credibility of designees.

Asked about his top political foe, imprisoned opposition leader Alexei Navalny, Putin again rejected allegations that Russian authorities were behind Navalny’s poisoning with a nerve agent last year.

The Russian leader also dismissed arguments that Moscow was hoarding gas amid the EU energy crunch to press for a quick approval ofthe newly-built Nord Stream 2 pipeline, saying that Russia’s Gazprom gas giant has even overfulfilled its obligations under long-term contracts.

Putin, who is set to attend the Winter Olympics in China early next year, also criticized the U.S. political boycott of the Beijing Games, describing it as a mistake and part of efforts by Washington to contain China’s growing might.

___

Colleen Long and Benjamin Fox in Washington, Jill Lawless in London and Yuras Karmanau in Kyiv, Ukraine, contributed to this report.

Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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