By VLADIMIR ISACHENKOV
MOSCOW (AP) — Russian President Vladimir Putin urged the West on Thursday to “immediately” meet Russia’s demand for security guarantees precluding NATO’s expansion to Ukraine and the deployment of the military alliance’s weapons there.
Speaking during a marathon annual news conference, the Russian leader welcomed talks with the U.S. that are set to start in Geneva next month, but sternly warned that Moscow expects the discussion to produce quick results.
“We have clearly and precisely let them know that any further NATO expansion eastward is unacceptable,” Putin said.
Last week, Moscow submitted draft security documents demanding that NATO deny membership to Ukraine and other former Soviet countries and roll back the alliance’s military deployments in Central and Eastern Europe. A key principle of the NATO alliance is that membership is open to any qualifying country.
“Is it us who are putting missiles near the U.S. borders?” Putin said. “No, it’s the U.S. who came to our home with their missiles. They are already on the threshold of our home. Is it some excessive demand not to place any offensive systems near our home?”
Moscow presented its demand amid soaring tensions over a Russian troop buildup near Ukraine that has stoked fears of a possible invasion. U.S. President Joe Biden warned Putin in a conference call earlier this month that Russia will face “severe consequences” if it attacks Ukraine.
Putin previously denied having plans to launch an attack but has described a NATO expansion and weapons deployment in Ukraine as a “red line.”
Asked Thursday if he could provide a guarantee that Russia will not invade Ukraine, Putin snapped in response: “It’s you who must give us guarantees and give them immediately, now, and not have idle talk about it for decades.”
“How would the Americans respond if we put our missiles on the U.S. borders with Canada or Mexico?” he exclaimed.
The U.S. and its allies have said they won’t give Russia the kind of guarantee on Ukraine that Putin wants. American officials are conferring with European allies in advance of the Geneva talks.
The Russian leader charged during his news conference that the West had “cheated, blatantly swindled” Moscow by offering verbal pledges in the 1990s not to expand NATO’s presence east and then enlarging to incorporate former Soviet bloc countries in Central and Eastern Europe and the ex-Soviet republics in the Baltics.
Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic joined NATO in 1999, followed in 2004 by Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia and the former Soviet republics of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. In subsequent years, Albania, Croatia, Montenegro and North Macedonia also joined, bringing NATO’s membership to 30 nations.
“It’s not us who threaten anyone,” Putin said. “Is it us who came to the U.S. or British borders? No, they have come to us, and they now say that Ukraine will be in NATO.”
He accused the West of trying to make Ukraine “anti-Russia, constantly beefed up with modern weapons and brainwashing the population.”
Russia can’t keep living in anticipation of looming security threats posed by possible deployment of Western weapons in Ukraine, Putin said.
“Should Russia live constantly looking back at what’s going on and what new weapon systems are put there?” he exclaimed. “We need to think about ensuring our security.”
He argued that Western weapons could encourage hawkish forces in Ukraine to attempt to regain control over Russia-backed separatist regions by force and even try to reclaim Crimea, which Russia annexed from Ukraine in 2014.
The Russian leader claimed that Western expressions of concern about an alleged Russian invasion could be a prelude to a possible attempt by Ukraine to launch an offensive against the rebels in the east following two botched attempts in the past.
“There is an impression that they are preparing a third military operation and warning us not to meddle,” he said.
Ukrainian officials have denied an intention to launch an offensive against the separatists. Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Oleg Nikolenko said Thursday that Putin’s claim about Kyiv preparing a military operation is untrue.
Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014 and shortly after cast its support behind a separatist rebellion in the country’s east. The fighting, which started more than seven years ago, has killed over 14,000 people and devastated Ukraine’s industrial heartland, known as the Donbas.
Putin’s news conference lasted nearly four hours and also covered a range of domestic issues. He dismissed criticism of Russia designating scores of critical media and activists as “foreign agents,” a pejorative label that entails additional government scrutiny and is intended to undermine the credibility of designees.
Asked about his top political foe, imprisoned opposition leader Alexei Navalny, Putin again rejected allegations that Russian authorities were behind Navalny’s poisoning with a nerve agent last year.
He pledged that authorities involved in torturing inmates at Russia’s prisons would be brought to justice but said that other countries face similar problems.
Putin, who is set to attend the Winter Olympics in China early next year, also criticized the U.S. political boycott of the Beijing Games, describing it as a mistake and part of efforts by Washington to contain China’s growing might.
Yuras Karmanau in Kyiv, Ukraine, contributed to this report.
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