Russian president again voices anger at Nato expansion and says he would be prepared to intervene in Ukraine
Vladimir Putin has accused the west of “coming with its missiles to our doorstep” as he reiterated demands for no further Nato expansion in Europe.
The Russian president did little to reduce tensions over Ukraine as he spoke at a televised press conference, saying he would be prepared to launch an intervention if he felt Ukraine or its western allies were preparing an attack on Russia’s proxies in the country and saying he was seeking an “immediate” response to his demands over Nato.
“They keep telling us: war, war, war,” Putin said on Thursday. “There is an impression that, maybe, they are preparing for the third military operation [in Ukraine] and give us a fair warning: do not intervene, do not protect these people but if you do intervene and protect them, there will be new sanctions. Perhaps, we should prepare for that.”
Analysts have said Russia may be seeking a casus belli as it stations more than 100,000 soldiers, along with tanks and artillery, within striking distance of the Ukrainian border. The Russian defence minister, Sergei Shoigu, this week accused American mercenaries of transporting chemical weapons to the frontlines of the conflict zone, although he did not provide any evidence for the claim.
There are few signs that Ukraine’s military is preparing an offensive in Donbas, where the frontlines have remained mostly static for six years. More than 14,000 people have died since fighting began in 2014.
Putin said he did not want war with Ukraine but would seek new security guarantees from the west in upcoming talks with the US, reiterating his controversial demand that Nato’s eastern members remove troops and military installations that appeared after the countries’ accession to the alliance in 1997. At the press briefing, Putin said Russia needs an “immediate” response from the US and its allies to its demands.
“We have made it clear that Nato’s move to the east is unacceptable,” he said. “The United States is standing with missiles on our doorstep. Is it an excessive requirement not to install shock systems at our house? How would the Americans react if missiles were placed at the border with Canada or Mexico?”
He once again expressed anger over Nato’s expansion since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, an issue that has become central to his growing antagonism with the west.
“Sometimes it seems we are living in different worlds,” he said. “They said they wouldn’t expand, but they are expanding.”
Putin said talks with the US should begin next year in Geneva, adding “the ball is now in their court”.
He said: “American partners tell us that they are ready to launch this discussion, these talks in Geneva at the very beginning of next year. Both sides’ representatives have been appointed. I hope that the situation will unfold exactly under this scenario.”
Washington has confirmed it is ready to hold talks in January, although officials have made it clear that they’re not ready to discuss European security without the Europeans in the room. A Biden administration official on Thursday said a specific date and location were yet to be set.
But the Kremlin has warned Washington not to stall, with Putin saying he wanted security guarantees “right away, right now”. His spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, has said he is not ready to engage in “marathon” talks.
All that leaves open the possibility of a new Russian offensive in January, as weapons and crucial logistics infrastructure have continued to arrive by rail to Russia’s border with Ukraine.
On Thursday, Russia’s defence ministry announced it would deploy hundreds of Russians paratroopers to hold drills in Crimea, which Russia annexed from Ukraine in 2014, and nearby Krasnodar region. The drills would simulate the capture of a territory and involve 1,200 troops and more than 250 vehicles and aircraft, the defence ministry said.
Russian state television pundits have also grown increasingly aggressive, openly discussing the possibility of a conflict with Nato. “The TV set in our barrack hysterically fights Nato all day long,” wrote Alexei Navalny, the jailed opposition leader, in remarks from prison that were posted online. “On every channel, they talk about Nato threats. Putin himself laments that Nato is at our doorstep and we have nowhere to retreat. It seems that all of Russia lives on this only and people are no longer interested in any other news.”
Putin’s remarks came during a four-hour press conference on Thursday that the Kremlin holds annually in December. The event often has a carnival atmosphere, as serious questions about geopolitics are followed by softball questions meant to humanise Russia’s president. Some journalists arrive in costume. Due to coronavirus, the Kremlin reduced the number of journalists in the hall to 500 and also installed special tunnels that sprayed attenders with an aerosol disinfectant.
Over the four hours, Putin took three questions on the possibility of a war with Ukraine, while also deflecting questions on flagging vaccination rates (Europe’s are just as bad, he claimed), Gazprom’s role in the European gas crisis (which he claimed was invented), his crackdown on internal dissent (“exaggerated”) and the search for the masterminds of the murders of journalist Anna Politkovskaya and the opposition politician Boris Nemtsov (“exhaustive”, Putin said).
“I want to remind you what our opponents have said over the centuries: ‘Russia cannot be defeated, it can only be torn apart from within’,” he told a BBC Russia journalist during the event, when answering a question about the arrest of opposition figures and declaration of dozens of news outlets as foreign agents.
Putin also took some of questions on “cancel culture”, giving support to the Harry Potter author JK Rowling, as he compared views on transgender rights to new strains of the coronavirus.