Vladimir Putin has accused the US of seeking to hold Russia back by dragging it into a conflict over Ukraine, while insisting he wanted talks with Washington and Nato to continue to avoid a “negative outcome” such as war.
In his first public comments in several weeks since the US warned that Moscow was massing over 100,000 troops on the Ukraine border, the Russian president said Ukraine was being used as a “tool” by Washington.
“The US is not so much concerned about the security of Ukraine — although maybe they are thinking about it somewhere in the background — but their most important objective is to contain the development of Russia. This is what it is all about,” Putin said during a press conference with Hungary’s prime minister Viktor Orban in Moscow.
“It can be achieved in different ways. [They can] drag us into some kind of armed conflict and with the help of their allies in Europe impose against us the very tough sanctions that the US is talking about today.”
He again accused western powers of ignoring Russia’s security concerns and said the US and Nato had disregarded his demand for a guarantee that Kyiv would not join the transatlantic alliance.
“Let’s imagine Ukraine [becomes] a Nato member and starts these military operations. Are we supposed to go to war with the Nato bloc? Has anyone given that any thought? Apparently not,” Putin said.
When asked about Putin’s comments on Tuesday, Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, said that the US did not know what “decision” Putin would make but added that the “door to diplomacy remains open”.
“De-escalation will of course make that diplomatic path easier,” Psaki said.
The comments came amid a flurry of diplomatic activity in recent weeks aimed at de-escalating the crisis. Visiting Kyiv on Tuesday, Mateusz Morawiecki, Poland’s prime minister, said he would send arms to Ukraine to help it fend off a potential full-scale Russian invasion. His visit was followed by that of UK prime minister Boris Johnson, who renewed the UK’s support for Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky.
“As we stand here, Volodymyr, more than 100,000 Russian troops are gathering on your border in perhaps the biggest demonstration of hostility towards Ukraine in our lifetimes,” said Johnson, who also accused Putin of “holding a gun” to Ukraine’s head and attempting to “redraw the security map of Europe”.
The Polish prime minister said: “Our part of Europe does not suffer from earthquakes and volcano explosions, but despite this, living close to a neighbour like Russia, we have the feeling that we live near a volcano.”
Putin also said he hoped dialogue would continue. Antony Blinken, US secretary of state, and Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, spoke by phone, their first conversation since Washington sent a written response to Moscow’s security demands last week. Russia sent its own follow-up to the US response on Tuesday, though US officials say they are still awaiting a formal written response.
Blinken “emphasised the US willingness, bilaterally and together with allies and partners, to continue a substantive exchange with Russia on mutual security concerns, which we intend to do in full co-ordination with our partners and allies,” the state department said.
“I considered my visit a peace mission,” Orban said in Moscow. “I was able to tell the president that the European Union is unified and there is not a single EU leader who wants conflict with Russia. That is especially true to us Central Europeans.”
In a Facebook post, Dmytro Kuleba, Ukraine’s foreign minister, suggested that a new trilateral security “format” between Ukraine, the UK and Poland would help bolster the country’s defences and security. “We cannot expect security and prosperity somewhere in the future when we become members of the EU and Nato. We need them today,” Kuleba said.
The Polish arms shipment comes after the UK last month provided Ukraine with thousands of NLAW anti-tank busters and other equipment. The US last year provided a record $650mn in military assistance to Ukraine, on top of $2.7bn it has supplied since the war in the country’s east erupted in 2014.
Earlier on Tuesday Zelensky said Ukraine would add 100,000 professional troops to its 261,000-strong armed forces, and boost army salaries over the next three years.
The US and Ukraine’s other western backers fear Russia’s troop build-up could be preparation for a Russian invasion or deeper incursions on top of Moscow’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and the fomenting of a proxy separatist war in eastern regions of the country.
The US state department also on Tuesday ordered family members of US diplomats to leave Belarus amid growing concerns over an “unusual and concerning Russian military build-up” on Belarus’s border with Ukraine.
Additional reporting by Marton Dunai in Budapest