Russian President Vladimir Putin said Tuesday the U.S. and its allies, not the Kremlin, are to blame for rising tensions in Europe that have revived talk of war.
The Russian leader’s remarks to a gathering of top defense officials in Moscow were just the latest rhetorical escalation amid clashes with Washington and its NATO allies over Ukraine and other hot spots along Russia‘s western border, even as both sides hinted a diplomatic resolution is still within reach.
NATO leaders say Russia‘s build-up of troops along the restive Ukrainian border and its demands for security “guarantees” against future NATO expansion has led to the sharpest deterioration in relations since the end of the Cold War.
Mr. Putin clearly doesn’t see it that way.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken, addressing reporters in Washington later in the day, reiterated that Russia should expect “massive consequences” from a united NATO if it carries out new acts of aggression in Ukraine.
The exchange underscored the sharply differing perspectives the two sides are bringing to the crisis.
In the Russian president’s analysis, NATO has been engaged in a provocative policy disregarding Russia‘s interests virtually since the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, expanding eastward and accepting new members along Russia‘s border from the Baltics to the Black Sea.
The U.S. and its allies also have refused Mr. Putin‘s demand to rule out future NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia and have helped both militarily in the face of intimidation by Moscow. But Russian officials say they have been forced to draw a line in the sand in the face of repeated provocations in Russia‘s strategic backyard.
“What they are now trying to do and plan to do in Ukraine’s territory, it’s not thousands of kilometers away, it’s happening right at the doorstep of our house,” Mr. Putin said Tuesday.
Ukrainian officials are warning that the Kremlin is trying to lay the groundwork to justify a military invasion, with a major troop buildup on the border and strong words of support for a pro-Russia Ukrainian separatist movement battling the government in Kyiv.
The Associated Press reported Tuesday that Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu charged that more than 120 employees of unnamed private U.S. military companies are training troops and providing tactical advice in eastern Ukraine to forces fighting the separatists.
Russia last week presented broad demands for security guarantees in Europe that NATO and Biden administration officials were quick to reject. But both sides still say they hope direct talks can avert the threat of a shooting war.
Despite the tough talk on both sides, there were signs more serious diplomacy is underway behind the scenes. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg announced that he intends to call a new meeting of the NATO-Russia Council as soon as possible in early January.
And Mr. Putin himself after his address talked by phone with French President Emmanuel Macron and new German Chancellor Olaf Scholz about the proposals he has presented for a new security arrangement in Europe.
Mr. Putin also told the Russian defense gathering, “Armed conflicts, bloodshed is not our choice, and we don’t want such developments. We want to resolve issues by political and diplomatic means.”
Mr. Blinken suggested there could be serious contacts between the two sides “early in the new year” to climb down from the current impasse.
“There are some very obvious nonstarters in things that the Russians have put on the table,” he said. “There may be other issues that are appropriate for discussion and conversation, just as there are things that we would put on the table that Russia needs to respond to.”
The U.S. diplomat insisted Washington and its European allies were united in resisting Russian aggression, but there was at least one discordant note: Bulgarian Defense Minister Stefan Yanev said his country would not accept a NATO troop deployment on its territory as a possible response to Russia‘s latest moves.
“Such a decision would not match the allies’ interests or the national interests of Bulgaria,” Mr. Yanev wrote in a Facebook post.