Russian President Vladimir Putin turned the up pressure ever so slightly on Thursday by restating his demands for security guarantees, including rolling back NATO’s eastward expansion and urging the West to move quickly.
Speaking during his annual marathon news conference with the international media, the Russian leader sounded a positive note by welcoming talks with the U.S., which are set to start in Geneva next month.
He warned, however, 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.
Russia wants a written guarantee that Ukraine and other former Soviet countries will not be allowed into NATO and that the alliance’s deployments in Eastern Europe be pulled. The United States and NATO have already rejected the first demand, saying membership is open to any qualifying country.
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 conference call earlier this month that Russia will face “severe consequences” if it attacks Ukraine.
Putin previously denied having 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.
There is an impression that they are preparing a third military operation and warning us not to meddle.– Vladimir Putin
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.
Andrew Rasiulis, a defence expert with the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, said he believes the Russian strategy is to keep turning up the pressure to bleed concessions out of both Ukraine and the West. An all-out military action would be “extremely bloody” and hard to keep contained.
“As we all know from history, when things like that get rolling, it’s very hard to control,” said Rasiulis, a former senior official at National Defence who once ran the Directorate of Nuclear and Arms Control Policy.
A limited war with contained political objectives, “that’s kind of wishful thinking, I think,” he added.
West has ‘blatantly swindled’ Moscow, Putin says
The Russian leader charged during his news conference that the West had “cheated, blatantly swindled” 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.
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? No, they have come to us, and they now say that Ukraine will be in NATO.”
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.”
Putin warns of Ukrainian offensive to reclaim Crimea
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,” Putin said.
Ukrainian officials have denied an intention to launch an offensive against the separatists.
Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014 and shortly after cast its support behind a separatist rebellion in the country’s east. The fighting, which started more than seven years ago, has killed more than 14,000 people and devastated Ukraine’s industrial heartland, known as the Donbas.
What the Russians want is essentially a neutral Ukraine, said Rasiulis.
The Minsk peace accords, which were supposed to end the fighting, have not been fully implemented because they contain a provision that would grant special status to the breakaway regions; one that would give them AN effective veto over NATO and European Union membership.
“By allowing the Donbas back in on the semi-autonomous status and respect for Russian language there, there almost guarantees that Russia that Ukraine will be de facto that neutral state that the Russians want,” said Rasiulis.
“I think all the facts were laid quite bare and people do understand where we stand today in the sense that the Russians are now very clear. Ukraine is to be a buffer zone. It is not to come into NATO, whether formally or informally.”