Putin gripes about NATO as US deploys more troops to Europe

Russian president says NATO and the US did not address Moscow’s main security demands, as Ukraine tensions simmer.

Russian President Vladimir Putin accused the US and NATO of ignoring Russia’s central security demand of permanently blocking Ukraine from NATO [File: Mikhail Metzel/Sputnik via Reuters]

Russian President Vladimir Putin has said the United States and NATO had not addressed Moscow’s main security demands in their standoff over Ukraine, as US President Joe Biden announced an additional troop deployment in Eastern Europe.

Putin offered his first reaction to the US and NATO responses to Russia’s demands in a phone call with French President Emmanuel Macron after weeks of personal public silence on the simmering crisis.

The Kremlin quoted Putin as telling Macron he would study the responses provided by Washington and NATO this week before deciding on further action.

“Attention was drawn to the fact that the US and NATO replies did not take into account Russia’s principal concerns,” the Kremlin said of Putin’s conversation with Macron.

It listed those concerns as avoiding NATO expansion, not deploying offensive weapons near Russia’s borders and returning NATO “military capabilities and infrastructure” to how they were before former Warsaw Pact states in Eastern Europe joined the alliance. It is also seeking guarantees that Ukraine will be permanently barred from joining NATO.

“The key question was ignored – how the United States and its allies intend to follow the principle of security integrity … that no one should strengthen their security at the expense of another country’s security,” the Kremlin said.

A French presidency official said Putin had underlined that he did not want the situation to intensify, echoing conciliatory comments by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who said Moscow did not want war.

The comments come after US President Joe Biden on Thursday warned that a Russian invasion of Ukraine could be imminent.

On Friday, Biden announced that he would soon send a small number of US troops – “not too many” – to bolster the NATO presence in Eastern Europe as tensions remain heightened.

The US already has tens of thousands of troops stationed across mostly Western Europe.

INTERACTIVE- How big are Russia and Ukraine
(Al Jazeera)

‘We don’t need panic’

For his part, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy criticised a “feeling abroad” that war had already started, suggesting a Russian attack is not imminent though an economically damaging war is possible.

In a telephone call a day earlier, Biden warned Zelenskyy of a “distinct possibility” that Russia could take military action against Ukraine.

“We don’t need this panic,” Zelenskyy told a news conference in Kyiv.

“I don’t consider the situation now more tense than before. There is a feeling abroad that there is war here. That’s not the case.”

He also called on Russia to prove its claims it has no intention of invading Ukraine.

“They say this openly, in different media, from different officials – so they could at least show some steps to prove it,” Zelenskyy said.

Al Jazeera’s Kimberly Halkett, reporting from Washington, DC, said it was clear that Zelenskyy wanted to “reassert himself in a conversation that appears may be taking on a life of its own”.

“It appears that he is trying to set the record straight,” she added. “What we are hearing from the US and President Joe Biden is that the threat is imminent, but the take from the president of Ukraine is that it may not be as imminent as Washington is characterising.”

Volodymyr Zelenskiy, Ukraine's president during a news conference
Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Ukraine’s president, pauses during a news conference following a four-way summit on Ukraine at Elysee Palace in Paris, France, on December 9, 2019 [File: Bloomberg]

Energy supplies

Lavrov said Moscow does not want a war but will not allow Russian interests “be rudely trampled on and ignored”.

“If it depends on Russia, then there will be no war. We don’t want wars,” he told Russian radio stations.

Lavrov is expected to meet US Secretary of State Antony Blinken again in the next couple of weeks. Their last meeting in Geneva on January 21 produced no breakthrough.

He said, without giving details, that the US counterproposals were better than NATO’s.

A senior US administration official said Washington welcomed Lavrov’s comment on Russia not wanting war, adding, “we need to see it backed up by swift action”.

The US and the European Union have warned Russia that it will face economic sanctions if it attacks Ukraine.

These would build on sanctions imposed on Russia since it annexed Crimea and backed separatists in eastern Ukraine in 2014, though there are divisions among Western countries about how to respond as Europe is dependent on Russia for energy supplies.

Biden and Ursula von der Leyen, who heads the European Commission – the EU’s executive branch – said they had agreed to cooperate on guaranteeing Europe’s energy security but gave no details.

The EU currently depends on Russia for approximately a third of its gas supplies and there are fears that the Kremlin could use its energy dominance as leverage.

EU officials have repeatedly called for unity in the bloc over Ukraine, with some concerned that Germany – worried about energy supplies – has not taken a tougher stance.

Talking down war prospect

Late on Friday, US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin cautioned Russia that “there is still time and space for diplomacy”.

“There’s no reason that this situation has to devolve into conflict,” he said.

Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mark Milley also urged Russia to “stand down and to pursue a resolution through diplomacy”.

“Armed force should always be the last resort. Success here is through dialogue,” he said.

Al Jazeera’s Alan Fisher said that while it is clear the US is talking down the prospect of wanting a war, they are also not ruling that out as a possibility.

“The US is continuing to bang the drum of ‘yes, there can be a diplomatic response to this’ – even going as far as saying there’s a possibility of a summit between Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin,” he said, speaking from Washington, DC. “But they’re also very clear in warning the Russians they will respond if NATO asks to have air forces there.”

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies