Russian President Vladimir Putin has accused the United States and its allies of ignoring Moscow’s security concerns over Ukraine but says he hopes the two sides will be able to negotiate a solution to the intensifying standoff.
Speaking in Moscow on Tuesday, Putin said the Kremlin was studying a response from the US and NATO to demands Russia presented – including keeping Ukraine out of the Western security alliance – but said the replies had been far from adequate.
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“It is already clear that fundamental Russian concerns ended up being ignored,” Putin said at a news conference with the visiting prime minister of Hungary.
Putin said that while the US says it is concerned about Ukraine’s security, it is using the ex-Soviet country as a “tool” in its efforts to contain Russia.
Still, he argued that it was possible to find an end to the crisis if the interests of all parties, including Russia’s security concerns, are taken into account.
“I hope that we will eventually find a solution, although we realise that it’s not going to be easy,” he said.
The comments – Putin’s first on the crisis in more than a month – suggested that a Russian invasion of Ukraine, as the West fears, may not be imminent and that at least one more round of diplomacy is likely.
The standoff has resulted in tensions between Russia and the West reaching levels not seen since the end of the Cold War.
Russia has amassed more than 100,000 troops near its borders with Ukraine, prompting Western leaders to accuse Moscow of preparing an invasion of its neighbour and to warn of severe consequences if it invades.
Russia insists it has no plans to attack and has instead put forward proposals it says would ease tensions. In addition to demanding that NATO not expand to Ukraine and other ex-Soviet nations, the proposals ask the US and NATO to refrain from deploying offensive weapons near Russia and roll back its deployments to Eastern Europe.
The US and its allies, however, say Ukraine, like any other nation, has the right to choose alliances, although it is not a NATO member now and is unlikely to join any time soon.
Putin on Tuesday said Western allies’ refusal to meet Russia’s demands violates their obligations on the integrity of security for all nations.
He warned that a Ukrainian accession to NATO could lead to a situation where Ukraine launches military action to reclaim control over Russian-annexed Crimea or areas controlled by Russia-backed separatists in the country’s east.
“Imagine that Ukraine becomes a NATO member and launches those military operations,” Putin said. “Should we fight NATO then? Has anyone thought about it?”
He also said Washington is not primarily concerned with Ukraine’s security, but with “containing Russia’s development”.
“In this sense, Ukraine itself is just a tool to achieve this goal,” he said.
“This can be done… 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 US.”
In Washington, DC, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said “the door to diplomacy, remains open”, but she stressed that “does not mean that we are not going to stand by our own values, which includes our belief and the belief of NATO countries that it should be up to NATO members to determine who is able to join NATO”.
US Department of State spokesman Ned Price also noted that Secretary of State Antony Blinken had spoken to his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov earlier in the day and made the point that “this diplomacy, if it is to bear fruit, will need to take place in the context of de-escalation – that is something, of course, that we have yet to see”.
Price said Blinken was resolute in “the US commitment to Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, as well as the right of all countries to determine their own foreign policy and alliances”.
Blinken “urged immediate Russian de-escalation and the withdrawal of troops and equipment from Ukraine’s borders,” Price said. He reaffirmed that “further invasion of Ukraine would be met with swift and severe consequences and urged Russia to pursue a diplomatic path.”
‘Foot of a volcano’
For his part, Lavrov said he emphasised in his call with Blinken that the Kremlin wants the West to respect the 1999 Istanbul Charter for European Security, which states that no country can “strengthen their security at the expense” of others, a point it considers at the heart of the crisis.
According to the Russian TASS news agency, Lavrov said Blinken “agreed that there is a subject matter here for a further talk”. He added, “We will see how things develop.”
The statements came amid a flurry of diplomacy, with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki visiting Kyiv to show their solidarity with Ukraine.
Johnson, who met Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in Kyiv, 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 cooperation.”
Johnson said any Russian invasion of Ukraine would lead to military and humanitarian disaster.
“There are 200,000 men and women under arms in Ukraine, they will put up a very, very fierce and bloody resistance,” he said. “I think that parents, mothers in Russia should reflect on that fact and I hope very much that President Putin steps back from the path of conflict and that we engage in dialogue.”
Morawiecki meanwhile said Poland would help Ukraine with gas and arms supplies, as well as humanitarian and economic aid.
“Living close to a neighbour like Russia, we have the feeling of living at the foot of a volcano,” the Polish leader said.