By Ken Bredemeier
Russian President Vladimir Putin said Tuesday the U.S. and its allies have ignored Russia’s top security demands that it deny Ukraine membership in the NATO military alliance and pull back its weaponry near Russia, while the U.S. reiterated its “commitment” to Ukraine and its territorial integrity.
The dueling statements failed to ease tensions over Moscow’s deployment of more than 100,000 troops along Ukraine’s eastern flank, although Russia denies it intends to invade the onetime Soviet republic.
Putin, in his first public comments on the standoff with the West over Ukraine in more than a month, said at a news conference that the Kremlin is still studying the U.S. and NATO response to Russian security demands received last week.
The West has refused to rule out Ukraine membership in NATO, saying no outside country has veto power over who belongs to the U.S.-led military alliance formed after World War II.
“It’s already clear now … that fundamental Russian concerns were ignored,” Putin told reporters.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken emphasized U.S. “commitment” to Ukraine in a call Tuesday with his Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, the State Department said.
Blinken urged “immediate Russian de-escalation” of the crisis along Ukraine’s eastern flank by withdrawing its troops.
Blinken and Lavrov spoke a day after United Nations representatives from the two countries faced off at the U.N. Security Council over Russian-denied allegations that it is planning a large-scale invasion of neighboring Ukraine, which leans to Western allies for military and diplomatic support.
Blinken emphasized U.S. willingness, along with its allies, “to continue a substantive exchange with Russia on mutual security concerns,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said.
But Blinken “further reiterated the U.S. 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 spokesman said in a reference to Ukraine’s stated desire to join NATO.
Blinken also reiterated the U.S. threat to impose “swift and severe” economic sanctions against Moscow if it invades Ukraine.
Putin held his news conference after meeting with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in Moscow.
Meanwhile, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson arrived in Kyiv for discussions with Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelenskiy.
“We urge Russia to step back and engage in dialogue to find a diplomatic resolution and avoid further bloodshed,” Johnson said in a statement.
Britain, like the United States and other Western allies, has provided weapons to Ukraine, and Johnson is considering doubling British troops in the Baltic countries.
Blinken and Lavrov held face-to-face talks January 21 in Geneva, and since then the two sides have exchanged written responses in order to try to make their positions clear.
The United States received a Russian response letter Monday, but State Department officials declined to discuss its contents, citing a desire to keep the negotiation process private.
Later this month, U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin is traveling to Europe to meet with NATO allies amid tensions with Russia.
Pentagon press secretary John Kirby, speaking in an interview with VOA Tuesday, said that Austin would attend the in-person NATO defense ministerial hosted by NATO Secretary General-Jens Stoltenberg on February 16-17.
Pentagon correspondent Carla Babb contributed to this report.