Russian President Vladimir Putin accused the West on Tuesday of ignoring Russia’s security concerns and deliberately creating a scenario designed to lure it into war.
In his first direct public comments on the Ukraine crisis for nearly six weeks, a defiant Putin showed no sign of backing down from security demands that Western countries have called non-starters and a possible excuse to launch an invasion.
“It’s already clear now … that fundamental Russian concerns were ignored,” Putin said at a news conference with the visiting prime minister of Hungary, one of several NATO leaders trying to intercede with him as the crisis has escalated.
Putin described a potential future scenario in which Ukraine was admitted to NATO and then attempted to recapture the Crimea peninsula, territory Russia seized in 2014.
“Let’s imagine Ukraine is a NATO member and starts these military operations. Are we supposed to go to war with the NATO bloc? Has anyone given that any thought? Apparently not,” he said.
Russia has massed more than 100,000 troops on the Ukrainian border, and Western countries say they fear Putin may be planning to invade.
Russia denies it is planning an invasion but has said it could take unspecified military action unless its security demands are met. Western countries say any invasion would bring sanctions on Moscow.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken told Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Tuesday that it was time for Moscow to withdraw its troops if it is sincerely not planning to invade, said a senior State Department official.
“We continue to hear those assurances that Russia is not planning to invade, but certainly every action we see says otherwise, with the continued build up of troops, heavy weapons, moving to the border,” the official said on condition of anonymity.
“If President Putin truly does not intend war or regime change, the Secretary told Foreign Minister Lavrov then this is the time to pull back troops and heavy weaponry and engage in a serious discussion….that can enhance collective European security.”
UKRAINE AN ‘INSTRUMENT’, PUTIN SAYS
Putin has not spoken publicly about the Ukraine crisis since Dec. 23, leaving ambiguity about his personal position while diplomats from Russia and the West have been engaged in repeated rounds of talks to defuse the crisis.
His remarks on Tuesday reflected a world view in which Russia needed to defend itself from an aggressive and hostile United States. Washington was not primarily concerned with Ukraine’s security, but with containing Russia, he said.
“In this sense, Ukraine itself is just an instrument to achieve this goal. This can be done in different ways, by drawing us into some kind of armed conflict and, with the help of their allies in Europe, forcing the introduction against us of those harsh sanctions they are talking about now in the U.S.,” he said.
Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who has often sparred with Western European leaders over democracy in his own country, said he believed after his talks with Putin that there was room for a compromise.
“I got convinced today that the existing differences in positions can be bridged and it is possible to sign an agreement that would guarantee peace, guarantee Russia’s security and is acceptable for NATO member states as well,” Orban said.
GUN TO UKRAINE’S HEAD
Western countries have rushed to show solidarity with Ukraine. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson met President Volodymyr Zelenskiy in Kyiv on Tuesday. Johnson accused Putin of holding a gun to Ukraine’s head to demand changes to the security architecture in Europe.
“It is vital that Russia steps back and chooses a path of diplomacy,” Johnson said. “And I believe that is still possible. We are keen to engage in dialogue, of course we are, but we have the sanctions ready, we’re providing military support and we will also intensify our economic co-operation.”
Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, also visiting Kyiv, said Warsaw would help Ukraine with gas and arms supplies, as well as humanitarian and economic aid.
“Living close to a neighbor like Russia, we have the feeling of living at the foot of a volcano,” said Morawiecki, promising Ukraine artillery ammunition, mortar bombs, portable air-defense systems and surveillance drones.
Zelenskiy, who has repeatedly played down the prospect of an imminent invasion, signed a decree on Tuesday to boost his armed forces by 100,000 troops over three years. He urged lawmakers to stay calm and avoid panic, saying he had ordered the increase “not because we will soon have a war… but so that soon and in the future there will be peace in Ukraine”.