Russian President Vladimir Putin has accused the United States of trying to “drag” Russia into a war with Ukraine in order to impose sanctions. But he also commented that he wanted to keep the door open for diplomatic de-escalation, saying: “I hope dialogue on Ukraine will continue”.
The comments, which Putin made at a press conference following a meeting with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, are his first public statement on the escalating tensions on the border with Ukraine since the end of last year.
Moscow has amassed an estimated 100,000 troops on the Ukraine border since October last year to bolster its diplomatic offensive to reverse what it sees as the creeping expansion of Nato, but Washington and Nato allies fear this could be a real preparation for an invasion of Ukraine. These fears have been heightened by Russian preparations for a large-scale military exercise in Belarus, which some argue could be a pretext for an invasion of northern Ukraine.
Putin argued that the West was keen to portray Russia as an aggressor in the situation in order to justify harsh retaliatory measures like sanctions. Earlier on Tuesday, the Kremlin described threats by British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss of seizing the London properties of oligarchs in the event of war as “alarming”.
“Let’s imagine Ukraine is a Nato member and starts these military operations. Are we supposed to go to war with the Nato bloc?” Putin asked.
He was also at pains to stress that the West had not yet responded to Russia’s fundamental demand: to agree on no further expansion of Nato eastwards. “It’s clear now that fundamental Russian concerns were ignored,” he said.
US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken spoke to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov over the phone on Tuesday, February 1. The call, which lasted about 30 minutes, was described as “professional and fairly candid” by a senior State Department official, CNN reports.
“If Putin doesn’t intend war or regime change, this is the time to pull back,” Blinken told Lavrov, according to a senior state department official, the Guardian reported.
The official record of the call read by State Department spokesperson Ned Price said that "the secretary urged immediate Russian de-escalation and the withdrawal of troops and equipment from Ukraine's borders. He emphasised that further invasion of Ukraine would be met with swift and severe consequences and urged Russia to pursue a diplomatic path."
Lavrov reportedly stressed that Russia’s own demands on the matter had not been met, after the US refused to exclude Ukraine from any future membership of Nato.
Price’s record of the call said that Blinken "further reiterated the US commitment to Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity, as well as the right of all countries to determine their own foreign policy and alliances".
The next step in the diplomatic exchange between Washington and Moscow is expected to be a formal Russian response to a US “non-paper” setting out US positions on European security.