Russian President Vladimir Putin has blamed the West for the escalating tension in Europe, and said his country was ready to resort to unspecified military measures if the United States and NATO continued their “aggressive line.”
In comments delivered Tuesday to Russia’s top military brass, Mr. Putin appeared to suggest his regime was at a decision point and would be forced to take some kind of action unless the West made accommodations for Russia’s security interests. Last week, Russia demanded guarantees that Ukraine would never be allowed to join the 30-member North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
The Kremlin is also calling for NATO’s Western members to withdraw the forces they have stationed in Eastern Europe, a demand that would appear to include Canadian deployments to Ukraine and Latvia.
Russia’s demands have been described by Western leaders as non-starters. U.S. assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs Karen Donfried told reporters on Tuesday that she expected bilateral talks on Russia’s proposals early in the new year, potentially through the NATO-Russia Council that has not met since 2019.
Mr. Putin’s speech was delivered as an invasion-sized army remained in place along his country’s long borders with Ukraine. Mr. Putin said the crisis began not with his military moves but with NATO’s repeated expansions to the east since the end of the Cold War.
“What is happening now, the tension that is developing in Europe, is their fault. At every step, Russia was forced to somehow respond, at every step the situation was constantly getting worse, worse, worse – degraded and degraded,” Mr. Putin said, as a room full of his country’s generals sat listening in silence. “And today we are in a situation where we are forced to decide something. We cannot allow the development of the situation.”
Though Russia has denied that it has any plans to launch a new invasion of Ukraine, Mr. Putin again made clear that NATO’s presence in the country – where Canadian, U.S. and British soldiers are deployed on training missions – was a red line for Russia. “We can’t retreat any further,” he said. “Do they really think we’ll sit idly as they create threats against us?”
The Canadian, U.S. and British training missions to Ukraine were all launched in the wake of Russia’s 2014 seizure and annexation of the Crimean Peninsula. Similarly, NATO battle groups were deployed to Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia and Poland in the wake of the Crimea takeover and were meant to reassure member states that shared a border with Russia.
Ms. Donfried said the U.S. would continue to send military equipment and supplies to Ukraine ahead of talks about the Kremlin’s demands. She said the U.S. would increase such support if Russia launched a new attack on Ukraine. The Biden administration has also warned it would use harsh economic tools – possibly including cutting the country off from the SWIFT international banking system – in the event of an invasion.
Mr. Putin made his combative remarks 30 years to the day after Boris Yeltsin and leaders of the other republics of the Soviet Union, including Ukraine, announced that the USSR was no more. In a television documentary that aired in Russia this week, Mr. Putin referred to the end of the Soviet empire as a “tragedy” and “the collapse of historical Russia.”
Much of his speech to his military commanders was devoted to recriminations about how the West has allegedly mistreated Russia over the past three decades.
Mr. Putin claimed, not for the first time, that the CIA had infiltrated Mr. Yeltsin’s administration while he was Russia’s first post-Soviet president. Mr. Putin read out a list of complaints, most of them old, ranging from the West’s alleged support for Chechen separatists through a pair of bloody wars in the 1990s and 2000s to the U.S. decision to withdraw from the Cold War-era Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty in 2002.
Mr. Putin said Russia and the West had been “almost allied” in the 1990s, before NATO began expanding. In 1999, the alliance took in former Warsaw Pact countries Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic. Five years later, it expanded again to include seven more Eastern European countries, including the former Soviet republics of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.
“Why was it necessary to support separatism in the North Caucasus … what for? Why was it necessary to expand NATO, to withdraw from the ABM treaties?” Mr. Putin asked. Then he added a warning: “In the event that the clearly aggressive line of our Western colleagues continues, we will take adequate retaliatory military-technical measures, and react toughly to unfriendly steps. And, I want to emphasize, we have every right to do so.”
It wasn’t clear what Mr. Putin meant by “military-technical measures.” In addition to the estimated 100,000 troops, 1,300 tanks and 1,800 pieces of artillery massed around Ukraine, Russia has threatened to move intermediate-range nuclear missiles within striking distance of European cities, positioning that had been barred by a 1987 treaty until the pact was abandoned three years ago by former U.S. president Donald Trump.
In his own remarks to the military brass on Tuesday, Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu claimed an unnamed American private military company had acquired chemical weapons and was planning to launch a “provocation” in the Donbas region of southeastern Ukraine, part of which is under the control of a Russian-backed militia.
Mr. Shoigu provided no evidence to support his claim. Russia has repeatedly warned that it would intervene militarily to protect the region’s predominantly Russian-speaking population if it were threatened.
Ukrainian officials have said they have no plans to try and retake Donbas by force. Defence Minister Oleksii Reznikov told The Globe and Mail in a recent interview that front-line troops had been instructed to be on alert for possible false-flag operations, or other traps that could be used to justify a new Russian assault.
More than 13,000 people have been killed in Donbas since fighting began there in early 2014.
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