Russian leader’s speech to top commanders comes as tensions grow with the west over Ukraine
Vladimir Putin addresses an extended meeting of the Russian defence ministry board. Photograph: Mikhail Tereshchenko/AP
The Guardian-Andrew Roth in Moscow
Vladimir Putin has said he will consider a military response if Russia feels threatened by Nato, in a sign that he is not ready to de-escalate tensions over a potential invasion of Ukraine.
In a combative speech on Tuesday, Putin – who has demanded “security guarantees” from Nato – told his top military commanders that the west was to blame for the rising tensions. It came against a backdrop of a Russian buildup of tanks and artillery for what could constitute an invasion force within weeks.
The Russian president has railed against Nato enlargement since the fall of the Soviet Union and accused the west of turning Ukraine against Russia. After a revolution installed a pro-western government in 2014, Moscow annexed Crimea and sparked a conflict in east Ukraine that has left more than 14,000 dead. It has bristled at growing military cooperation between Ukraine and Nato countries.
“If our western counterparts continue a clearly aggressive line, we will undertake proportionate military-technical countermeasures and will respond firmly to unfriendly steps,” he said in televised remarks. “I’d like to stress that we are fully entitled to do that.”
Putin did not specifically refer to the possibility of an offensive operation in Ukraine and Russian diplomats have previously suggested Russia’s response could employ other measures, such as moving intermediate-range missiles within striking distance of European targets. That would be a punishment, Moscow claims, for the United States’ unilateral withdrawal from a missile treaty in 2018.
But parts of Putin’s speech on Tuesday appeared tailored to give Russia a justification to launch a new military campaign in Ukraine, something it could be ready for as soon as next month.
“What the United States is doing in Ukraine is at our doorstep,” he said of US support for Kyiv. “And they should understand that we have nowhere further to retreat to. Under their protection they are arming and urging on extremists from a neighbouring country at Russia. At Crimea, for instance. Do they think we’ll just watch idly?”
Putin did not give any specific evidence for his claims. Sergei Shoigu, Russia’s defence minister, claimed an unnamed American private military company had acquired chemical weapons and was planning to launch a “provocation” in the east Ukrainian cities of Avdeevka and Krasny Liman. Russia’s military previously made similar claims in Syria, although the predicted attacks often did not take place.
In his remarks, Putin repeated demands that the west make legal guarantees to ensure Russia’s security, but said he would have difficulty trusting the US to abide by a treaty.
“We need long-term legally binding guarantees,” Putin told military commanders. “You and I know well that even they, legal guarantees, cannot be trusted because the United States easily withdraws from all international agreements it loses interest in for one reason or another … giving no explanations whatsoever.”
Russia last week put forward a highly contentious list of security guarantees it says it wants the west to agree to in order to lower tensions in Europe and defuse the crisis over Ukraine, including many elements that have already been ruled out.
The demands include a ban on Ukraine entering Nato and a limit to the deployment of troops and weapons to Nato’s eastern flank, in effect returning Nato forces to where they were stationed in 1997, before an eastward expansion.