Russian President Vladimir Putin has delivered his marathon annual news conference as tensions mount between Moscow and Western powers over Ukraine.
Putin addressed the rising concerns, and commented on the COVID-19 pandemic, Russia’s economy and jailed opposition leader Alexey Navalny, among other topics, during Thursday’s event, which came before next month’s planned US talks in Geneva.
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Last week, Moscow presented the West with sweeping security demands, calling on NATO to deny membership to Ukraine and other former Soviet countries – and roll back military deployments in Central and Eastern Europe.
That came after Russia built up troops near the Ukraine border, marking the second such mass military deployment this year and stoking fears in Kyiv of a possible imminent invasion.
Here’s a summary of Putin’s remarks:
Putin said Moscow was not seeking war with neighbouring Ukraine, but warned it was impossible to have good relations with the current Ukrainian government.
He accused President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of being influenced by “radical nationalist forces”.
“This is not our choice, we do not want this,” he told reporters when asked about the possibility of conflict.
Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014 and shortly after supported a separatist rebellion in the country’s east, plunging relations between Moscow and the West to post-Cold War lows.
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.
Putin on Thursday accused Ukraine’s government of breaking its commitments under a 2015 deal meant to halt fighting in the Donbas and refusing to talk to representatives of two breakaway regions there.
He said the future of the region should be determined by the people who live there, adding that Moscow saw itself as a “mediator” in the conflict.
Kyiv, for its part, has said it is gearing up for a possible invasion by Russian troops – which Moscow has denied. Zelenskyy this week said he was ready to talk with Russia “in any format”, which the Kremlin has so far rejected.
Putin said that Moscow had warned the US that “any further NATO expansion eastward is unacceptable” and accused Washington of placing weaponry unacceptably close to Russia’s borders.
“Is it us who are putting missiles near the US borders?” he said. “No, it’s the US who came to our home with their missiles. They are already on the threshold of our home. Is it some excessive demand not to place any offensive systems near our home?”
The Russian leader said the West had “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 former Soviet republics in the Baltics.
“‘Not one inch to the East,’ they told us in the ’90s. So what? They cheated, just brazenly tricked us,” he said. “Five waves of NATO expansion and now already, please, the systems are appearing in Romania and Poland.”
A key principle of the NATO alliance is that membership is open to any qualifying country. Putin has previously described a NATO expansion and weapons deployment in Ukraine as a “red line” for Russia.
Russia did not receive any evidence from Western countries to prove the alleged poisoning of Navalny with a Soviet-era nerve agent in August 2020, Putin said.
“We sent numerous official inquiries from the Russian prosecutor’s office asking for any documents proving the poisoning. There is not a single paper,” he told reporters.
Putin added that he had personally told French President Emmanuel Macron and then-Chancellor Angela Merkel to involve Russian specialists in the investigation into the incident, but his calls were not welcomed.
Navalny was arrested on January 17 this year when he returned to Russia from Germany, where he had spent five months recovering from the poisoning that he has blamed on the Kremlin, and subsequently imprisoned in connection with a fraud case he claims is politically motivated.
Russian officials have repeatedly denied any involvement in last year’s incident.
Putin said he hoped Russia could vaccinate enough people to reach collective, or herd, COVID-19 immunity next year, as he urged more Russians to get inoculated.
“Collective immunity today in Russia is 59.4 percent … But this is not enough, we need collective immunity of around 80 percent,” he said. “Hopefully, next year, somewhere at least by the end of the first quarter or in the second quarter, we will reach this level.”
Russia’s pandemic death toll is one of the world’s highest, and the country has endured a recent spike in infections fuelled by the highly infectious Delta variant. Health authorities have also recorded dozens of cases of the new, highly transmissible Omicron variant.
Putin said there was a need for vaccines to be spread “around the world as quickly as possible in as large a quantity as possible.”
He said that otherwise, “we will not be able to cope with this problem globally, humanity will live with it all the time.”
Russia is aiming to curb inflation and return it to a target level of 4 percent, Putin said.
The rate accelerated to a near six-year peak of more than 8 percent in late November.
To curb galloping prices, the Kremlin has introduced price caps and export quotas, while the central bank has repeatedly increased its key interest rate.
“I know the real (economy) sector’s dissatisfaction with raising rates, but if this is not done, we could have the same problem Turkey has. This is a serious issue and a serious challenge,” Putin said.
He added that Russia’s economy was expected to have grown by 4.5 percent in 2021 and said unemployment had dropped, with the latter rate anticipated to stand at 4.4 percent by the end of the year.