Putin demands NATO guarantees not to expand eastward

MOSCOW (AP) – President Vladimir Putin said on Wednesday that Moscow would seek Western guarantees preventing any further NATO expansion and the deployment of its weapons near its country’s borders, a stern demand that comes amid fears of a Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Ukrainian and Western officials have expressed concern about a build-up of Russian troops near Ukraine, saying it could signal Moscow’s intention for an attack. Russian diplomats have denied these claims, expressing concern over the strengthening of the Ukrainian army near the area of ​​the separatist conflict in the east of the country.

Speaking at a ceremony in the Kremlin during which he received the credentials of foreign ambassadors, Putin stressed that Russia will seek “reliable and long-term security guarantees”.

“In a dialogue with the United States and its allies, we will insist on the elaboration of specific agreements which would exclude any further advance of NATO towards the east and the deployment of weapons systems which threaten us in the immediate vicinity. Russian territory, ”Putin said.

He accused “the threats to climb on our western border”, NATO bringing its military infrastructure closer to Russia and proposed to the West to engage in substantive talks on the issue, adding that Moscow would need not only to verbal assurances, but “legal guarantees.”

“We do not demand any special conditions for ourselves and realize that any agreement must take into account the interests of Russia and all Euro-Atlantic countries,” Putin said. “A calm and stable situation must be ensured for all and is necessary for all without exclusion. “

Putin’s statement came a day after he sternly warned NATO against deploying its troops and weapons in Ukraine, saying it represented a red line for Russia and would trigger a firm response.

Tensions have soared in recent weeks over a build-up of Russian troops near Ukraine, which has worried Ukrainian and Western officials, who saw it as a possible sign of Moscow’s intention to invade its former Soviet neighbor. NATO foreign ministers warned Russia on Tuesday that any attempt to further destabilize Ukraine would be a costly mistake.

The Kremlin insists it has no such intention and has accused Ukraine and its Western backers of pretending to cover up their own supposedly aggressive designs.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said the concentration of Ukrainian troops seemed “alarming”, adding that he would raise the issue at a ministerial meeting in Stockholm of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe on Thursday . He again assaulted Ukraine for failing to meet its obligations under a 2015 peace deal for the region negotiated by France and Germany and signed in Minsk, Belarus.

“Kiev is becoming increasingly insolent in its aggressiveness towards the Minsk accords, the Russian Federation and in its attempts to provoke the West to support its military ambitions,” Lavrov said in remarks to the upper house of the Russian parliament .

The US State Department and the Russian Foreign Ministry said Blinken and Lavrov will meet on Thursday on the sidelines of the OSCE meeting. A State Department official said Blinken will meet with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba first.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said Ukraine had amassed around 125,000 troops – about half the size of its army – near the conflict zone. She also highlighted a growing number of ceasefire violations in the east.

Amid the tensions, Moscow on Wednesday launched exercises in southwest Russia involving more than 10,000 troops. A smaller exercise has also started in Russia’s westernmost region, Kaliningrad on the Baltic, involving 1,000 members of armored units.

Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014 after the country’s Kremlin-friendly president was ousted from power by mass protests. Moscow has also supported a separatist insurgency in Ukraine’s eastern industrial center, known as Donbass. More than 14,000 people have died in the fighting.

Ukraine and the West accused Russia of sending troops and weapons to support the rebels. Moscow denied this, accusing the Russians who joined the separatists of being volunteers.

In Wednesday’s address to parliament, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy called for negotiations with Russia to end the conflict in the east.

“We have to tell the truth – we wouldn’t be able to stop the war without direct talks with Russia,” Zelenskyy said. “We are not afraid of direct dialogue.

The Kremlin responded by reaffirming its long-held position that Russia is not a party to the conflict, describing the fighting in the east as a civil war.

“The war in Donbass is Ukraine’s internal affair,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters. “We know of the attempts to make Russia a party to the conflict, but they are not. It is only possible to end the war in the Donbass through talks between Ukrainians.

Peskov said the concentration of Ukrainian troops in the Donbass could herald an attempt by Kiev to regain control of rebel-held territory.

“This makes us fear that tendencies to solve the Donbass problem by force may prevail,” he said. “It is a very dangerous adventurism.”

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Yuras Karmanau in Kiev, Ukraine, and Ellen Knickmeyer in Washington contributed.

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