Putin signals openness to diplomacy while blaming US for crisis

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

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

The Russian president has claimed that it is the United States that is fanning the flames of war, seeking to induce the Kremlin to act and create a pretext to enact tough new sanctions. Officials in Russia — as well as in Ukraine — have accused the Biden administration of overstating the threat of a Russian invasion, even as the Kremlin has massed Western estimates of more than 100,000 troops in the south. eastern and northern Ukraine, 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 only an instrument to achieve this goal. This can be done in different ways, for example by dragging us into an armed conflict and then forcing their allies in Europe to adopt these severe sanctions against us.

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

Mr Putin’s carefully calibrated comments touched on the high tensions of the moment – and the crucial decisions the longtime Russian leader will face in the weeks to come. Military analysts say maintaining Russia’s current military buildup, which involves units located thousands of miles away, will become increasingly costly and logistically difficult.

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 far-reaching consequences. .

In Washington, White House press secretary Jen Psaki reacted derisively to Mr Putin’s comments, likening them to “when the fox shouts from the top of the chicken coop that he’s afraid of the chickens”.

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

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

Mr Putin’s appearance, at a joint press conference with Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary after they met for five hours, came as a flurry of diplomacy involving Europe and the United States. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken spoke by phone with his Russian counterpart, Sergei V. Lavrov, who later said the United States had agreed to “continue discussions” on Russia’s demands .

The Kremlin said Putin also had a call Tuesday with Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi and an in-person meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron was scheduled. Mr Putin will meet with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Wednesday.

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

Mr Zelensky, who also met with the Polish prime minister on Tuesday, offered his own grim assessment, after weeks of downplaying US and UK assessments of the severity of the Russian threat.

“It will not be a war between Ukraine and Russia,” if diplomatic efforts fail, he said. “It’s going to be a European war, a full-fledged war.”

As Mr Johnson tried to keep the focus on Russia, he was instantly put on the defensive by aggressive questioning over a scandal over illicit parties during the pandemic that jeopardizes his hold on power. “On the issue of Ukraine,” asked one journalist, “why should the international community take your diplomacy seriously when you are so concerned?”

Mr Johnson dodged most questions about his problems at home. But pressed to publish an unredacted report from a senior official investigating the parties, Mr Johnson replied: ‘Of course we will publish everything as soon as the process is complete.

For weeks, Russia has been insisting that the current crisis is not just about Ukraine, but about a European security architecture that ignores Russia’s interests. Last December, as US officials began to sound the alarm over what they said was a Russian troop build-up, Moscow issued written demands for “security guarantees”. They included that NATO, the Western military alliance, is not expanding eastward, ensuring that Ukraine will never join it, and that NATO is withdrawing forces from Eastern European countries. ‘is that were once part of the Soviet Union or its orbit.

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

The United States has tried to engage Mr Putin over his diplomatic demands, betting that such negotiations – backed by threats of harsh sanctions if 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 requests.

Western officials said they had not budged in those responses on their assertion that each country should be allowed to choose its alliances, but said they had offered talks on other security issues relevant to the Russia.

Mr Putin said on Tuesday that Russia was “always carefully analyzing” these responses, but it was clear that its most pressing demands were being ignored. He described the possibility of Ukraine joining NATO as a fundamental threat not only to Russia, but to world peace.

He said a Western-allied Ukraine bolstered by NATO weapons could launch a war against Russia to retake Crimea – which Russia annexed in 2014, a move not recognized by the international community. This, he said, could lead to a war between Russia and the NATO bloc.

“If we examine all these many questions in depth, seriously, it becomes clear that in order to avoid such a negative development of the situation – and we want to avoid it – the interests of all countries, including those of Russia, must be really taken into account, and a way must be found to solve this problem,” Putin said.

Still, Mr Putin said he would continue to talk, including with Mr Macron, the French president, who may visit Moscow in the near future.

“I hope we will eventually find this solution even if it is not easy, we understand that,” Putin said. “But talking today about what it will be – of course I’m not ready to do that.”

Even as it faces the West, the Kremlin is keen to show that Russia has friends around the world. A visit to Moscow by Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro is in preparation, the Kremlin said. On Friday, Putin will travel to 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, Russian Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia told reporters he hoped the Olympics would provide respite from heightened tensions, at least for the first few days of February. The day before, Russia and the United States clashed angrily over the Ukraine crisis at an open meeting of the Security Council, with theatrics and rhetoric reminiscent of the Cold War era.

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

“We have a few days and a few 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 anything is going to happen suddenly.”

Anton Troianovski reported from Moscow and Michael Schwirtz from Kiev. Reporting was provided by Ivan Nechepurenko and Valerie Hopkins from Moscow, Jason Horowitz from Rome, Maria Varenikova from Kiev, Michael Crowley and David E. Sanger from Washington, and Rick Gladstone from New York.

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