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Amid Ukraine invasion fears, Putin says West must give NATO guarantees

Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images

(MOSCOW) — Amid fears Russia might invade Ukraine, Russia’s president Vladimir Putin has again repeated demands for guarantees from Western countries that NATO will not expand in eastern Europe, but also expressed hope that negotiations with the Biden administration in January could allow the two sides to “move forward.”

Putin offered the mixed messages on Thursday during his marathon end-of-year press conference in Moscow, making menacing accusations against Ukraine but also sounding more hopeful notes around the possibility for negotiation.

Western countries are alarmed that Russia may be preparing a renewed invasion into Ukraine this winter, amid a build up of tens of thousands of Russian troops on its border. Putin has demanded the U.S. and NATO give legal guarantees the alliance will not expand further and withdraw NATO troop deployments from eastern Europe.

The Biden administration has called those demands non-starters but has agreed to hold talks with Russia over its concerns. Putin on Thursday said those talks would take place in Geneva in January and said Russia had seen a “positive reaction” from the U.S. to its demands to negotiate.

“I hope that the first positive reaction and the announced possible start of work in the near future, in the first days of January, will allow us to move forward,” Putin said.

Putin said Russia was forced to confront NATO and Ukraine now to prevent the country potentially becoming a base for NATO missiles in the future.

“And so we put the question directly: there must be no movement of NATO further to the east,” he said. “The ball is in their court. They must answer us something.”

The U.S. and NATO countries have rejected Russia’s demands for a veto on NATO expansion, seeing them as an attempt by the Kremlin to have formal recognition for a sphere of influence over Ukraine. Analysts and Western officials have been trying to understand whether the Russian build up is a negotiating tactic or signals a real readiness to invade.

Putin’s comments on Thursday did little to move the needle. He said Russia did not want conflict but alleged there Ukraine might be preparing a military operation to re-take the Russian-controlled separatist regions in its east, saying Kyiv had tried to do it twice before in the past.

“They keep telling us: war, war, war,” Putin said. “There is an impression that, maybe, they are preparing for the third military operation and are warning us in advance: do not intervene, do not protect these people. But if you do intervene and protect them, there will be new sanctions. Perhaps, we should prepare for that.”

Analysts fear Russia might use the accusation of a Ukrainian attack as pretext to launch its own invasion. There are no signs Ukraine’s government is preparing such an assault, which would risk an overwhelming Russian response.

Russia last week published two draft treaties listing its demands from the U.S. and NATO. The proposals would limit NATO troops and military infrastructure to the countries where they were based before 1997, when the key eastern European members joined.

The Biden administration immediately rejected Russia’s demands limiting which countries can join NATO. But it has said it is ready to hold talks with Moscow about some of the other proposals, which are linked to arms control for example.

Putin spoke at length and angrily about NATO’s expansion eastward since the end of the Cold War, a grievance he has long held.

Asked by a journalist from Britain’s Sky News on Thursday if he would guarantee Russia will not invade Ukraine, Putin said it was Russia that needed guarantees from Western countries over NATO.

“What guarantees must we give you? You must give us guarantees. Right here and right now!” Putin said.

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