By Natalia Zinets and Vladimir Soldatkin
KYIV/MOSCOW – Russian President Vladimir Putin accused the West on Tuesday of deliberately creating a scenario designed to lure it into war and ignoring Russia’s security concerns over Ukraine.
In his first direct public comments on the crisis for nearly six weeks, a defiant Putin showed no sign of backing down from security demands that the West has called non-starters and a possible excuse to launch an invasion, which Moscow denies.
“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 intensified.
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 this 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.
The Kremlin wants the West to respect a 1999 agreement that no country can strengthen its own security at the expense of others, which it considers at the heart of the crisis, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said.
He raised the charter signed in Istanbul by members of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which includes the United States and Canada, during a call with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
Lavrov said Blinken accepted the need to discuss the matter further whilst a U.S. account of the call focused on the need for Moscow to pull back.
“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,” a senior State Department official told reporters.
Putin had 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.
His remarks on Tuesday reflected a world view in which Russia needs to defend itself from an aggressive and hostile United States. Washington is not primarily concerned with Ukraine’s security, but with containing Russia, Putin said.
“In this sense, Ukraine itself is just an instrument to achieve this goal,” he said.
“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.”
Hungarian 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.
Western countries have rushed to show solidarity with Ukraine. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson met President Volodymyr Zelenskiy in Kyiv and 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 a 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.”
Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, also visiting Kyiv, said Poland 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.
Zelenskiy, who has repeatedly played down the prospect of an imminent invasion, signed a decree to boost his armed forces by 100,000 troops over three years. He urged lawmakers to stay calm and avoid panic.
The troop increase was “not because we will soon have a war … but so that soon and in the future there will be peace in Ukraine,” Zelenskiy said.