What Putin’s Press Conference Means For Ukraine
Kremlin officials have suggested, without elaborating on specific plans, that Russia is prepared to retaliate militarily if its demands are rejected.
Russian president Vladimir Putin held his major end-of-year press conference on Thursday. Putin pressed the West for concrete security guarantees over the course of the marathon four-hour event, reiterating Russia’s historical grievances against NATO enlargement while expressing hope for the outcome of ongoing negotiations.
The Russian Foreign Ministry published a draft document earlier this month containing a list of security demands. The document, which consists of two separate agreements with the United States and NATO, calls for sweeping Western guarantees against eastward NATO expansion, limitations on the deployment of NATO forces on the alliance’s eastern flank, and prohibitions on the deployment of foreign troops and establishment of foreign military bases in Ukraine and other post-Soviet states.
State Department spokesperson Ned Price suggested earlier this week that the White House is drafting its own list of “concerns” vis-à-vis Russia. “We are going to put on the table our concerns with Russian activities that we believe are harmful to our collective interests and our collective values – collective with our European allies and partners,” Price said.
Putin swatted aside the legitimacy of Western counter-concerns, framing Russia as the historical victim of NATO’s aggressive behavior. “It was the United States that came with its missiles to our home, to the doorstep of our home,” he said during his press conference, referring to NATO expansion. “And you demand from me some guarantees. You should give us guarantees. You! And right away, right now.”
“How would the Americans respond if we put our missiles on the U.S. borders with Canada or Mexico?” Putin said. “It’s not us who threaten anyone… Is it us who came to the U.S. or British borders? No, they have come to us, and they now say that Ukraine will be in NATO.”
Reiterating the themes expressed in his July essay on Ukrainian history, Putin warned that Moscow will not tolerate what he previously described as the West’s attempt to turn Ukraine into a kind of “anti-Russia.” The Russian president described the possibility of NATO weapon systems in Ukraine as an existential long-term threat to Russia’s security. “This is not our choice, we do not want this,” Putin stressed. “We posed the issue directly, without any clever tricks, that there can be no further NATO expansion to the east. The ball is in their court. They should give us an answer.”
The North Atlantic alliance has already ruled out some of the Kremlin’s demands, including a legal prohibition on Ukraine’s right to seek NATO membership. Some of the document’s other points, including the establishment of a Russia-NATO Council, a hotline between the two sides, and mutual measures to affect demilitarization in Ukraine, have garnered a more positive reception among some in Washington. But the Russian side appeared to insist last week that the Kremlin will not accept a piecemeal approach to negotiations. “This is not a menu,” said Russian deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov, adding that the document’s many proposals “complete” and “reinforce” one another.
Fyodor A. Lukyanov, editor-in-chief of the journal Russia in Global Affairs and chairman of the Presidium of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, told the Washington Post that the demands could be intended to serve as a foundation for future dialogue. “Certainly, some of the points in this composition are practically unimplementable,” Lukyanov said. “But if we believe that this is something like a new version of classical diplomacy where the radical positions are put on the table at the beginning and then some kind of bargaining begins — whatever the sides are saying now — then probably we can expect some kind of attempt at least to have a conversation.”
Kremlin officials have suggested, without elaborating on specific plans, that Russia is prepared to retaliate militarily if its demands are rejected. "They have been extending the limits of what's possible,” Rybkov told Russian news outlet Interfax. "But they fail to consider that we will take care of our security and act in a way similar to NATO's logic and also will start extending the limits of what is possible sooner or later. We will find all the necessary ways, means and solutions needed to ensure our security." Russian deputy foreign minister Alexander Grushko said the West has “two choices:” to “take seriously what we have put on the table or face a military-technical alternative.”
Putin did not appear to address the charge, leveled earlier this week by Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, that U.S. contractors smuggled “tanks with unidentified chemical components” into eastern Ukraine’s Donetsk region in order to stage a “provocation” presumably involving pro-Russian separatist forces in the Donbass region. Washington swiftly denied those allegations, with Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby saying “those statements by Minister Shoigu are completely false.”
Despite his administration’s tough messaging and dire warnings, Putin characterized the course of negotiations as “positive,” adding that “our American partners tell us that they are ready to start this discussion." Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said on Wednesday that the first round of Russia-NATO talks will commence in early January. Lavrov’s statement came just one day after NATO secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg announced at a conference in Brussels that the alliance is ready for “meaningful dialogue” with Russia.
Mark Episkopos is a national security reporter for the National Interest.