Putin blames West for tensions, demands security guarantees

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Russian President Vladimir Putin addresses an extended meeting of the Russian Defense Ministry Board at the National Defense Control Center in Moscow, Russia, Tuesday, Dec. 21, 2021. (Mikhail Tereshchenko, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

MOSCOW (AP) — The Russian president on Tuesday reiterated his demand for guarantees from the U.S. and its allies that NATO will not expand eastwards, blaming the West for “tensions that are building up in Europe.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s speech at a meeting with Russia’s top military brass came just days after 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.

The demands — contained in a proposed Russia-U.S. security treaty and a security agreement between Moscow and NATO — were drafted amid soaring tensions over a Russian troop buildup near Ukraine that has stoked fears of a possible invasion. Russia has denied it has plans to attack its neighbor but pressed for legal guarantees that would rule out NATO expansion and weapons deployment there.

Putin charged Tuesday that if U.S. and NATO missile systems appear in Ukraine, it will take those missiles only minutes to reach Moscow.

“For us, it is the most serious challenge — a challenge to our security,” he said, adding that this is why the Kremlin needs “long-term, legally binding guarantees” from the West, as opposed to “verbal assurances, words and promises” that Moscow can’t trust.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Washington is working with its European allies to address what he called “Russian aggression” with diplomacy but said President Joe Biden opposes the kind of guarantees sought by Putin.

“The president has been extremely clear for many, many years about some basic principles that no one is moving back on: the principle that one country does not have the right to change by force the borders of another, that one country does not have the right to dictate the policies of another or to tell that that country with whom they may associate,” Blinken told reporters in Washington. “One country does not have the right to exert a sphere of influence. That notion should be relegated to the dustbin of history.”

Putin noted that NATO has expanded eastward since the late 1990s while giving assurances that Russia’s worries were groundless.

“What is happening now, tensions that are building up in Europe, is their (U.S. and NATO’s) fault every step of the way,” the Russian leader said. “Russia has been forced to respond at every step. The situation kept worsening and worsening, deteriorating and deteriorating. And here we are today, in a situation when we’re forced to resolve it somehow.”

Russia’s relations with the U.S. sank to post-Cold War lows after it annexed the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine in 2014 and backed a separatist insurgency in eastern Ukraine that still controls territory there. Tensions reignited in recent weeks after Moscow massed tens of thousands of troops near Ukraine’s border.

Putin has pressed the West for guarantees that NATO will not expand to Ukraine or deploy its forces there and raised the issue during a video call with U.S. President Joe Biden two weeks ago.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu charged Tuesday that more than 120 staff of U.S. private military companies are currently operating in two villages in war-torn eastern Ukraine, training Ukrainian troops and setting up firing positions in residential buildings and different facilities.

Putin said the U.S. “should understand we have nowhere to retreat.”

“What they are now trying to do and plan to do at Ukraine’s territory, it’s not thousands of kilometers away, it’s happening right at the doorstep of our house,” he said.

Putin added that Moscow hopeds “constructive, meaningful talks with a visible end result — and within a certain time frame — that would ensure equal security for all.”

“Armed conflicts, bloodshed is not our choice, and we don’t want such developments. We want to resolve issues by political and diplomatic means,” Putin said.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Karen Donfried, the top U.S. diplomat for Europe, said at a briefing Tuesday that Washington is “prepared to discuss those proposals that Russia put on the table.”

“There are some things we’re prepared to work on, and we do believe there is merit in having discussion,” Donfried told reporters after a visit to Kyiv, Moscow and Brussels.

“There are other things in those documents that the Russians know will be unacceptable,” she added, without specifying which ones.

Donfried said bilateral U.S.-Russia meetings are likely to happen in January, and talks within NATO-Russia Council, as well as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, are likely to see movement in January as well.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said Tuesday that he intends to call a new meeting of the NATO-Russia Council as soon as possible in the New Year.

“Any dialogue with Russia needs to be based on the core principles of European security and to address NATO’s concerns about Russia’s actions,” Stoltenberg said.

On Tuesday evening, Putin talked about Russia’s proposals in phone calls with French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz. According to the Kremlin, Putin informed Macron about Moscow’s “diplomatic efforts on the subject,” and gave Scholz “detailed comments” on the drafts Russia-U.S. security treaty and a security agreement between Russia and NATO submitted last week.

In the conversation with Scholz, “hope was expressed that serious negotiations would be organized on all the issues raised by” Moscow, the readout said.

The conflict in eastern Ukraine was also discussed in both phone calls, with Putin claiming that Kyiv was reluctant to implement the Minsk agreements — a peace deal brokered by France and Germany in 2015 that helped end large-scale hostilities in the region.

Efforts to reach a political settlement of the Ukraine conflict, which has killed more than 14,000 people, have failed, however, and sporadic skirmishes have continued along the tense line of contact.

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Associated Press writers Angela Charlton in Paris and Lorne Cook in Brussels contributed to this report.

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