MOSCOW — Russian President Vladimir Putin, in a marathon news conference Thursday, blamed the West for tensions on the Ukraine border and fears of war, but stopped short of issuing any pronouncements likely to drive further escalation.
One of his most prominent television appearances of the year, the annual conference, which lasted about four hours, was an opportunity for him to convince Russians that Kyiv’s westward turn is an urgent security threat to Moscow — one that could justify military action. It wasn’t just Russia watching closely: Western officials monitored the event to glean how Putin would present Russia’s saber-rattling and for hints at his intentions.
Russia has massed some 100,000 troops, along with military hardware, on its border with Ukraine, preparing for what U.S. officials have warned could be a full-scale attack. Addressing his domestic audience — and maybe the Western one, too — Putin said Russia would rather not fight a war, and that he would prefer to resolve the tensions through a diplomatic track.
Though Putin was given two opportunities to say definitively that Russia would not invade Ukraine, he instead reiterated his demand for a promise in writing that NATO would not expand eastward. He said the talk of “war, war, war,” from a Russian perspective, could be read as a signal that Kyiv, not Moscow, is the side preparing to attack. “And we are warned in advance, ‘Don’t get involved, don’t meddle, don’t defend these people,‘” he said, referring to the Russia-backed separatist territories in eastern Ukraine. “‘If you defend, these sanctions will follow.’”
“We need to think about how Russia is going to live,” he added. “Are we supposed to always look behind our shoulder and wait?”
Russia’s Foreign Ministry last week published sweeping demands it presented to the United States and NATO that would effectively bar all other former Soviet republics, including Ukraine, from joining or cooperating with the alliance.
Putin described the U.S. response to Russia’s proposals — what Moscow refers to as “security guarantees” — as “positive.” He added that he expects to hold negotiations with a White House delegation about Ukraine and NATO in Geneva next month.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki underscored Putin’s comments about diplomatic talks and said the United States also believes that diplomacy is the “best path and the right path.” She dismissed the idea that either NATO or Ukraine was threatening Russia, noting that NATO is a “defensive alliance, not an aggressive alliance.”
“Facts are a funny thing, and facts make clear that the only aggression that we are seeing at the border of Russia and Ukraine is the military buildup by the Russians and the bellicose rhetoric from the leader of Russia,” Psaki said.
Psaki said the United States is looking to hold talks with Russia in early January.
“Clearly, there are some things that have been proposed that we would never agree to, and I think the Russians probably know that,” a senior Biden administration official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity during a briefing with reporters to discuss a sensitive matter. “There are other areas where we may be able to explore what’s possible.”
The senior official said any conversations with Moscow would take place on the basis of reciprocity, with Washington also raising its concerns about Russian activities, and in close coordination with U.S. allies in Europe.
Russia’s demands to the United States and NATO have raised worries among analysts that Moscow is making requests that it knows are nonstarters, seeking to send a message domestically and to create a pretext for possible military action once those demands are spurned.
Fyodor Lukyanov, a foreign policy analyst who advises the Kremlin, said Moscow’s demands to NATO could just be a starting point for deeper negotiations.
“Certainly, some of the points in this composition are practically unimplementable,” Lukyanov said. “But if we believe that this is something like a new version of classical diplomacy where the radical positions are put on the table at the beginning and then some kind of bargaining begins — whatever the sides are saying now — then probably we can expect some kind of attempt at least to have a conversation.”
Putin’s end-of-year news conference typically has a circuslike atmosphere, and Thursday’s was no exception. State television channels start a countdown days in advance, and journalists from across the country packed a Moscow hall with signs and costumes to grab Putin’s attention.
As a pandemic precaution, the Kremlin invited fewer journalists than usual — around 500 — from Russian and foreign media outlets. Those in attendance had to take three PCR tests in advance and pass through a disinfection tunnel upon arrival. Seats inside the hall were spaced out — and bolted down — to enforce social distancing. Putin sat well back from the first row of journalists.
The questions ranged from the pandemic to Putin’s views on gender nonconformity (“a woman is a woman, a man is a man”) to whether Russians should prepare for a war.
His comments about Ukraine on Thursday were somewhat less bellicose than remarks he made earlier in the week. He told senior officers at the Russian Defense Ministry on Tuesday that Moscow would take “military-technical response measures and react harshly to unfriendly steps.”
In previous remarks, he said that the United States and its allies supply Kyiv with lethal weapons, conduct “provocative” military exercises in the Black Sea and fly strategic bombers just 12 miles from Russia’s borders. Washington has provided Kyiv with $2.5 billion in defensive military assistance since 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine.
Putin has warned NATO repeatedly against stationing missile defense systems in Ukraine similar to those in Romania and Poland, claiming that they could be secret offensive weapons capable of reaching Moscow within 10 minutes.
“Do we put our missiles close to U.S. borders?” he asked Thursday. “No! It’s the U.S. which has come to our house with its missiles — they’re on our doorstep already!”
Asked about the comments, the senior Biden administration official declined to get into a “point-by-point with President Putin about what he meant by missiles and what he meant by ‘on his doorstep.’”
“I could very easily go through a litany of provocative Russian deployments, troops and offensive systems on the border of NATO-allied countries, but I don’t think it is productive to get into that tit for tat,” the senior official said.
The senior official warned that if Moscow were to proceed with an invasion, the United States would provide more support to Ukrainian forces, underscoring that the military aid Washington is giving Kyiv is defensive in nature, “not systems that would allow Ukraine to threaten Russia in any meaningful sense.”
“It’s clear to us that if Russia goes ahead with what may be underway, we and our allies are prepared to impose severe costs that would damage Russia’s economy and bring about exactly what it says it does not want: more NATO capabilities, not less, closer to Russia, not further away,” the senior official added.
While Putin’s move to invade and then annex the Crimean Peninsula was ultimately quite popular among Russians, analysts say there is little current popular support for war. People here are weary of new sanctions, which the United States warned would be “unprecedented,” if Russia takes military action against Ukraine.
But the Kremlin’s messaging on the tensions with Kyiv appears to be working. Half of the Russians surveyed in a recent poll by the independent Levada Center blamed the United States and other NATO countries for the escalation.
“If he will see that some part of Russians are against it, he will just double down on convincing them that it’s for them and it’s necessary,” said Tatiana Stanovaya, head of the R.Politik think tank.
“But Putin’s regime now functions in such a way that no one can really question Putin’s visions and decisions,” she added. “As Putin doesn’t stand any critics and he doesn’t stand any questioning of his policy; he tends to make decisions that are sometimes emotional and much more subjective and questionable.”
This report has been updated.