Security threats keep Russian leader vigilant

While showing a firm hand in standoff with West, Putin offers ray of hope

The questions come thick and fast for Vladimir Putin during the Russian president's annual end-of-year news conference in Moscow on Dec 23. (NATALIA KOLESNIKOVA / AFP)

Amid increasing tensions at the Russia-Ukraine border that sparked fears of an all-out war, possible eastward expansion of NATO, as well as new sanctions from the United States and Europe, Russian President Vladimir Putin held his annual end-of-year news conference in Moscow on Dec 23.

Due to COVID-19 restrictions, media outlets were unable to apply for accreditation to the event for the first time since it was first held in 2001. Instead, the Kremlin allowed about 500 international and domestic journalists to take part.

In addition to the Ukraine crisis, in the four-hour event journalists asked Putin questions on topics ranging from what has been called Russia's "crackdown on civil society" and the pandemic's effect on the economy to his relationship with Russian Santa Claus.

Putin urged the West to immediately meet Russia's demand for security guarantees.

Earlier in December, Moscow submitted draft security documents demanding that NATO deny membership to Ukraine and other former Soviet countries and roll back the block's military deployments in Central and Eastern Europe, while NATO insisted that its key principle is that the membership is open to any qualifying country.

"We have clearly and precisely let them know that any further NATO expansion eastward is unacceptable," Putin said.

"Is it us who are putting missiles near the US borders? No, it's the US that came to our home with its missiles. It's already on the threshold of our home. Is it some excessive demand not to place any strike weapons systems near our home?"

Moscow presented its demand amid growing tensions on Ukraine. US President Joe Biden warned Putin in a video call in December that Russia faced "severe consequences" if it attacked Ukraine.

Russia has denied that it plans to launch an attack, but has described a NATO expansion and weapons deployment in Ukraine as a "red line".

Asked if he could provide a guarantee that Russia will not invade Ukraine, Putin snapped: "It's you who must give us guarantees and give them immediately, now, and not have idle talk about it for decades. How would the Americans respond if we put our missiles on the US borders with Canada or Mexico?"

On Dec 30, Biden and Putin exchanged warnings over Ukraine, but conveyed some optimism that diplomatic talks in January could ease spiraling tensions. During their second telephone call in less than a month, "both leaders discussed agreements reached during their previous consultations on Dec 7, including the decision to launch negotiations on the provision of legal guarantees aimed at ensuring Russia's security", said the Kremlin in a statement one day later.

The first round of security negotiations between the US and Russia was scheduled to take place in Geneva on Jan 9-10. They were expected to later continue in Brussels within the framework of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization-Russia Council on Jan 12, and within the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe on Jan 13.

Reporting on Putin's end-of-year news conference, Russian newspaper Vedomosti said the country's foreign policy was one of the focuses.

Putin said during the news conference that the West had "swindled, blatantly cheated" Moscow by offering verbal pledges in the 1990s of not expanding NATO's presence east and then enlarging to incorporate former Soviet countries in Central and Eastern Europe and the Baltic states.

Sergey Lavrov (right), Russia's foreign minister, with Antony Blinken, US secretary of state, in Stockholm on the sidelines of a security meeting on Dec 2. (JONATHAN NACKSTRAND / POOL / AFP)

'In different worlds'

"They said they wouldn't expand, and then they did expand. They said there would be equal guarantees for all, but there is no equal security. It seems to me sometimes that we live in different worlds," Putin said.

Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic joined NATO in 1999, followed by Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia and the former Soviet republics of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania in 2004. In subsequent years Albania, Croatia, Montenegro and North Macedonia joined, bringing NATO's members to 30.

Putin accused the West of trying to make Ukraine "anti-Russia, constantly beefed up with modern weapons and brainwashing the population".

Russia cannot keep living in anticipation of looming security threats posed by the possible deployment of Western weapons in Ukraine, he said.

The Russian newspaper Izvestia said that if US missile systems are deployed to Ukraine, their flight time to Moscow will drop to seven to 10 minutes, and the flight time of hypersonic weapons will be no longer than five minutes, which is the biggest concern of the Kremlin.

Izvestia quoted military sources in the Russian Defense Ministry as saying that Russia has already started to develop retaliatory measures to respond to the possible deployment of US hypersonic weapons to Europe and Ukraine, and these measures will have to fend off potential threats.

Moscow's proposals aimed at ensuring security in Europe include a Russia-NATO moratorium on the deployment of intermediate- and shorter-range missiles and strategic nuclear weapons to the region, as well as a ban on the movement of NATO's infrastructure to Ukraine. To avoid tensions, Moscow suggested making legally binding agreements on the issue.

"Unfortunately, we've been misled many times, to put it mildly, in terms of the political guarantees that were promised to presidents Gorbachev and Yeltsin," the paper quoted the former Russian deputy foreign minister Sergey Ordzhonikidze as saying.

The statement about the need for legal guarantees means that Russia has done a lot to correct its mistakes, he was quoted as saying.

"We don't need to make the same mistakes again and give in to shenanigans. This is why we demand that everything should be documented like in agreements where there is one party, the other party, and a ratification process."

But at the Dec 23 news conference Putin refused to rule out another military solution to the tensions with Ukraine. Kiev, he said, was planning an offensive to reclaim Donbass, the eastern border region now controlled by separatists.

Although Kiev has repeatedly requested direct dialogue by the two leaders, Putin made clear he did not see Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky as a negotiating partner, accusing him of falling under the influence of what he called radical nationalist forces.

"How can I build a relationship with the current leadership, given what they are doing? It's practically impossible."

Ukrainian Foreign Ministry spokesman Oleg Nikolenko said there was no intention to start a military offensive in Donbass, where the slow-burning conflict has killed more than 14,000 people.

A senior US administration official on Dec 23 said Washington would engage in diplomacy in January, but that the agenda would be broader than the proposals published by Moscow. The official also reiterated the threat of "massive sanctions" on Russia if it invaded Ukraine.

Tugboats get in to position for the Russian pipe-laying vessel Fortuna in Wismar port, Germany, on Jan 14, 2021. Construction of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline has been completed. (JENS BUETTNER / DPA / AP)

US' stringent proposals

Some EU countries have balked at the US' most stringent proposals, including proposed restrictions on Russian oil and gas imports and cutting Russian banks out of the Swift payments system.

British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said:"NATO is a defensive alliance, and Ukraine continues to show commendable restraint in the face of Russian provocation and aggression."

However, Italy's Prime Minister Mario Draghi said on Dec 22 that NATO, of which Italy is a member, had "other priorities" and that Europe, which imports about 40 percent of its gas from Russia, could not give up Russian gas supplies.

Michael Kofman, a specialist on the Russian military at the research organization CNA Corp, said the large-scale deployment of Russian forces on Ukraine's border would be costly for Moscow to sustain indefinitely and that Putin may have difficulty backing down from his public demands.

Russia's "diplomatic efforts appear more a justification than a genuine attempt to find compromise", Kofman said on Dec 21. "This is all trending in one direction."

Speaking during the annual news conference, Putin welcomed talks with the US, which he said are set to start in Geneva this month, as a positive move, but warned that Moscow expects the discussion to produce quick results.

"Our American partners are telling us they're ready to start this discussion, these negotiations," Putin said. "Representatives from both sides have been appointed. I hope that this is the way the situation will play out."

Although both White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki and Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said later that neither Biden nor Putin had yet to agree on a time and place for fresh talks with each other, Moscow said the two presidents built a good rapport.

"When they talk, they are very constructive, businesslike and very respectful in laying out for each other the points where our views are directly opposite," Peskov said, adding that he was unsure if the presidents liked one another.

The Director of the Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, Ruslan Pukhov, agreed that starting a fresh dialogue for US and Russian leaders would be difficult. Issues related to Ukraine will clearly be one of the main topics of the upcoming Russian-US talks in Geneva, along with the deployment of intermediate-range missiles to Europe, he said, adding that so far it was not about talks with Ukraine itself.

Dmitry Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, said:"There will be a conversation with the Americans, and depending on how it goes and what instructions Washington hands down to Kiev, a channel for a conversation with Ukraine may be unblocked, though it will hardly be initiated at the level of the presidents."

The fact that the date and location for a meeting between Russian and US negotiators have been agreed on is a positive sign, Trenin said. In other respects, Putin reiterated Moscow's well-known position. According to the Russian leader's logic, the Americans are now ready to engage in talks only under the threat of a conflict, Trenin said.

Putin has been playing the military and military-technical cards with the US, but the latter is now taking a back seat because Washington is more impressed by the threat of a full-scale conventional war in Eastern Europe than by Russia's capabilities to conduct nuclear missile attacks, Trenin said.

The conclusion is that Putin's rhetoric and actions are a clear demonstration of force, but it is linked to the desire to stabilize the deteriorating military and political situation in Europe, he said.

'Too early to say'

However, it is too early to talk about de-escalation in Russia's relations with the US and NATO, said Andrey Kortunov, director-general of the Russian International Affairs Council.

The outcome of the talks will largely depend on how Washington shapes the agenda, he said.

The US could refuse to discuss a range of issues that would fall with NATO's purview. The most important of them is the potential accession of Ukraine and Georgia to NATO, he said. The US is likely to limit this to a discussion on the nondeployment of new short- and intermediate-range missiles and strategic stability in Europe. The question remains open whether this format will be acceptable for Russia, but the fact that Moscow's proposals were not rejected on the spot is encouraging, Kortunov said.

The issue regarding the deployment of weapons to Europe certainly ranks high on the list for Moscow and seems to be the most promising at the negotiations, said Alexander Yermakov, a military expert with the Valdai Discussion Club.

All sides are likely to reach a consensus in terms of discussing the issue related to the short- and intermediate-range missiles in Europe.

Putin, who is to attend the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics in China in February, also criticized the US' announcement of not sending a delegation of government officials to the Games, describing it as a mistake and part of efforts by Washington to contain China's growing might.

Putin also dismissed arguments that Moscow was hoarding gas amid the EU energy crunch to press for a quick approval of the newly built Nord Stream 2 pipeline, saying that the Russian gas company Gazprom has even overfulfilled its obligations under long-term contracts.

Agencies and Xinhua contributed to this story.