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Putin signals openness to diplomacy while blaming U.S. for crisis


President Vladimir Putin said Tuesday that the United States was trying to pull Russia into an armed conflict over Ukraine that his government did not want and signaled he was prepared to engage in more diplomacy, even as he insisted that NATO’s presence in Eastern Europe threatened world peace.

Putin said he hoped that “dialogue will be continued” over Russia’s security demands, refraining from repeating his earlier threat to take unspecified “military-technical” measures if the West did not comply. Addressing the standoff over Ukraine for the first time since December, Putin appeared to be trying to dial down tensions slightly in a crisis that has ignited fears of a full-fledged Russian invasion of Ukraine.

The Russian president claimed it was the United States that was fanning the flames of war, seeking to goad the Kremlin into action and create a pretext for enacting harsh new sanctions. Officials in Russia — as well as Ukraine — have accused the Biden administration of exaggerating the threat of a Russian invasion, even as the Kremlin has massed, by Western estimates, more than 100,000 troops to Ukraine’s south, east and north, precipitating the crisis.

“Their most important task is to contain Russia’s development,” Putin said of the United States, repeating one of his frequent talking points. “Ukraine is just an instrument of achieving this goal. It can be done in different ways, such as pulling us into some armed conflict and then forcing their allies in Europe to enact those harsh sanctions against us.”

Asked about the United States’ written responses to Moscow’s security demands, which were delivered last week, Putin said that it was clear “that the principal Russian concerns turned out to be ignored.’’ The Kremlin, he said, is still assessing the responses as it weighs its next move.

Putin’s carefully calibrated comments spoke to the high tensions of the moment — and the pivotal decisions the longtime Russian leader faces in the coming weeks. Military analysts say that maintaining Russia’s current military buildup, which involves units from thousands of miles away, will become increasingly expensive and logistically challenging.

Sending some of them back to base before securing a diplomatic victory could be read as a sign of weakness, while launching an attack on Ukraine would be likely to cost many lives and have wide-ranging consequences.

In Washington, White House press secretary Jen Psaki reacted derisively to Putin’s comments, comparing them to “when the fox is screaming from the top of the henhouse that he’s scared of the chickens.”

“We know who the fox is in this case,” she said.

Ned Price, a State Department spokesperson, said he would “leave it to the Kremlinologists out there” to interpret the Russian leader’s words.

Putin’s appearance, at a joint news conference with Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary after they met for five hours, came as a flurry of diplomacy played out involving Europe and the United States. Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke by phone with his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, who said afterward that the United States had agreed to “further discussion” on Russia’s demands.

The Kremlin said Putin also held a call Tuesday with Prime Minister Mario Draghi of Italy, and that an in-person meeting with President Emmanuel Macron of France was planned. Putin will speak to Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain on Wednesday.

On Tuesday, Johnson flew to Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital, and met with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in a show of support, saying there is “a clear and present danger.’’

Zelenskyy, who also met with the prime minister of Poland on Tuesday, offered his own grim appraisal, after weeks of playing down American and British assessments of the severity of the Russian threat.

“This is not going to be a war of Ukraine and Russia,” should diplomatic efforts fail, he said. “This is going to be a European war, a full-fledged war.”

While Johnson tried to keep the focus on Russia, he was instantly put on the defensive by aggressive questioning about a scandal over illicit parties during the pandemic that is imperiling his hold on office. “On the issue of Ukraine,” one reporter asked, “why should the international community take your diplomacy seriously when you’re so preoccupied?”

Johnson dodged most of the questions about his troubles at home. But pressed on whether he would release an unredacted report by a senior civil servant investigating the parties, Johnson replied, “Of course we’ll publish everything as soon as the process is completed.”

For weeks, Russia has been insisting that the current crisis is not just about Ukraine, but about a European security architecture that fails to take Russia’s interests into account. Last December, as U.S. officials started raising alarms about what they said was a Russian troop buildup, Moscow issued written demands for “security guarantees.” They included that NATO, the Western military alliance, not expand eastward, guaranteeing that Ukraine will never join it, and that NATO draw down forces in Eastern European countries formerly part of the Soviet Union or its orbit.

Putin said these were existential issues that Russia was determined to finally resolve. But many analysts and Western officials interpreted his stance as an attempt to create a pretext for possible military action against Ukraine, a former Soviet republic that Putin has wanted to reinsert into Russia’s sphere of influence ever since Ukraine’s pro-Western revolution in 2014.

The United States has tried to engage with Putin on his diplomatic demands, betting that such negotiations — backed by threats of severe sanctions should they fail — could avert a Russian attack on Ukraine. After meetings with Russian officials last month, the United States and its NATO partners sent Russia written responses to Putin’s demands.

Western officials said they did not budge in those responses on their contention that every country must be allowed to choose its alliances, but said that they did offer talks on other security matters of interest to Russia.

Putin said Tuesday that Russia was still “carefully analyzing” those responses, but that it was clear his most pressing demands were being ignored. He described the possibility of Ukraine joining NATO as a fundamental threat not just to Russia, but to world peace.

He said that a Western-allied Ukraine strengthened with NATO weapons could launch a war against Russia to recapture Crimea — which Russia annexed in 2014, a move unrecognized by the international community. That, he said, could lead to war between Russia and the NATO bloc.

“If we look at all these many questions deeply, seriously, then it becomes clear that in order to avoid such a negative development of the situation — and we want to avoid it — all countries’ interests, including those of Russia, must be truly taken into account, and a way of solving this problem must be found,” Putin said.

Still, Putin said that he would keep talking, including with Macron, who may visit Moscow in the near future.

“I hope that eventually we will find this solution though it’s not easy, we understand that,” Putin said. “But to talk today about what that will be — I am, of course, not ready to do that.”

Even as it faces down the West, the Kremlin remains keen to show that Russia has friends around the world. A visit to Moscow by President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil is being prepared, the Kremlin said. On Friday, Putin will visit Beijing for a summit with President Xi Jinping on the day of the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics, in what will be the Chinese leader’s first meeting with a foreign counterpart since the pandemic.

At the United Nations on Tuesday, Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia of Russia told reporters that he hoped the Olympics would provide a respite from the heightened tensions, at least for the first few days of February. A day earlier, Russia and the United States angrily confronted each other over the Ukraine crisis at a public meeting of the Security Council, with theatrics and rhetoric reminiscent of the Cold War era.

After the joint news conference with Putin and Orban, the Kremlin released footage of the two enjoying a socially distanced Champagne toast. Orban is the Russian president’s closest ally among the leaders of the European Union and NATO.

“We have some days and weeks to negotiate,” Orban told Russian state television, responding to a question about the possibility of a Russian attack on Ukraine. “I don’t think that something will happen abruptly.”

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