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Tough Talk And Tough Talks: At Annual News Conference, Putin Sends Signals On Ukraine And NATO – Analysis

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By Steve Gutterman*

(RFE/RL) — Russian President Vladimir Putin’s message to the United States, NATO, and Kyiv at his annual press conference could arguably be summed up like this:

Happy Holidays — and after that, we’ll see.

The choreographed, nearly four-hour event on December 23 came with attention riveted on Russia’s military buildup near Ukraine’s borders and its calls for sweeping “security guarantees” from Washington and the Western alliance — as well as the implicit threat to invade its neighbor again if its demands are not satisfied soon.

In a remark that seemed designed to allay concerns that a Russian offensive could be imminent, Putin said that Russia has “so far seen a positive reaction” to what Moscow calls its proposals.

In fact, they are demands for radical changes to the security infrastructure erected in Central and Eastern Europe since the demise of the U.S.S.R. in 1991 and the end of communism in the region. U.S. officials have already said that some of these demands are unacceptable.

“Our U.S. partners told us that they are ready to begin this discussion, these talks, at the very start of next year,” Putin said. “I hope that’s how it will all play out.”

This was a 180-degree reversal of what the deputy foreign minister in charge of U.S. ties had said about the Western response less than a week ago, so the signal seemed to be that diplomacy would now come to the fore.

Putin “seemed to be hedging a little bit on the aggressive posture he had been taking before by expressing some optimism about talks with the U.S. next month,” William Courtney, a former director for Russia, Ukraine, and Eurasia at the White House National Security Council who earlier took part in negotiations with the Soviet Union on defense, told RFE/RL after the news conference.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if there were some debate in the Kremlin now, or among political elites, about the wisdom of starting their war,” said Courtney, who is now an analyst at RAND Corporation, a Washington think tank. “Certainly, from an economic perspective, his economic advisers must be telling him that the consequences for their conduct could be devastating.”

‘Give Us Guarantees!’

At the same time, Putin seemed determined to tell audiences at home and abroad that Moscow would not wait long — at all — for concrete action to allay what it says are its security concerns.

“You should give us guarantees. You! And without any delay! Now!” Putin said, referring to the West in response to a question from Britain’s Sky News.

Seeking to dismiss the notion that the military buildup could be a bluff or that Moscow might be satisfied simply to hold talks, he said that Russia’s actions will depend “not on how the talks go, but on the unconditional provision of security for Russia.”

And he reiterated one of Moscow’s main demands, saying: “We have clearly and precisely let them know that any further NATO expansion eastward is unacceptable.”

That’s a position that Western officials, in turn, say is unacceptable because Russia cannot have a veto over NATO membership for Ukraine or any other country.

Lest anyone think the agreement for talks means the Kremlin is softening its demands or its stance toward Kyiv and NATO, Putin hammered hard on those issues. He repeated baseless or unsubstantiated arguments — including the suggestion that the West wants to use Ukraine as a staging ground to dismantle Russia — in harsh terms.

At least twice, he made remarks that directly questioned Ukraine’s right to be a sovereign state, something he has done in the past.

And he angrily lashed out with one of the central claims that have underpinned Russia’s demands, asserting that NATO “duped” Moscow in the 1990s into thinking that it would not take in former Warsaw Pact nations or former Soviet republics.

Keeping Pressure On Kyiv?

Putin also repeated his criticism of the government of Volodymyr Zelenskiy, Ukraine’s democratically elected president. And he repeated his groundless claim that the downfall of Viktor Yanukovych, the Moscow-friendly president who fled Ukraine in 2014 after months of pro-European protests in Kyiv, was the result of a “bloody coup d’etat” backed by the West.

The point may have been to keep up the pressure on Kyiv and the West while at the same time signaling that Moscow hopes for progress at the talks.

Whether that hope is genuine has been a matter of debate among political analysts, some of whom suspect that Russia plans to use its proposals and the negotiations on them as a pretext for military action against Ukraine.

Others believe that the buildup of some 100,000 troops near Ukraine’s borders and in Russian-controlled Crimea is more likely to be a lever to get at least part of what it wants from Kyiv and the West.

“I don’t think we’ve reached or even approached quite the point of no return” in terms of a possible new Russian offensive against Ukraine, John Herbst, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, said at on December 22.

“I don’t have any doubt that Putin can turn his policy around on a dime, if he feels the need to,” said Herbst, who is now at the Atlantic Council in Washington. “Putin is playing for the concessions he will get from us by threatening.”

Putin traditionally holds his annual news conference in December. In this case, the timing seemed to suit the purposes of the Russian leader, who frequently uses rhetoric about ostensible external threats to rally support and draw attention away from problems at home.

Putin began by taking several questions about the economy, as he often does, and as usual a few journalists asked about the quality-of-life problems that plague Russia 30 years after the Soviet Union collapsed and 22 years after he first became president.

There were also the customary softballs such as which Russian city he would rather live in, not including Moscow or St. Petersburg. (His response, essentially: St. Petersburg, his hometown.)

But at least three of the 35-plus questions focused on the situation surrounding Ukraine.

Provocative Comments

That country has been the subject of numerous provocative comments from Putin, comments that have led to mounting concerns about his intentions. Moscow has controlled Ukraine’s Crimea region and supported separatists who hold parts of two eastern provinces since 2014.

And while repeating tendentious claims about Ukraine, NATO, and the West, Putin also rehashed long-standing positions on issues such as the poisoning and imprisonment of Kremlin foe Aleksei Navalny, the broader clampdown on civil society and dissent that has escalated dramatically over the past year.

He also touched on, and brushed off, new revelations about torture behind bars in Russia, and the still-unsolved assassinations of investigative journalist Anna Politikovskaya in 2006 and opposition politician Boris Nemtsov in 2015.

Without evidence, he made several suggestions that critics have dismissed as disingenuous or false in the past: that Kremlin opponents like Navalny are pawns in foreign plots to damage Russia “from within”; that prison torture isno worse than in Western countries; that the state has done everything it can to bring justice in the politically charged killings; and that Russia’s treatment of individuals and groups deemed “foreign agents” is less oppressive than in Western countries such as the United States and Britain.

RFE/RL correspondents Todd Prince, Mike Eckel, and Merhat Sharipzhan contributed to this report.

  • Steve Gutterman is the editor of the Russia Desk in RFE/RL’s Central Newsroom in Prague. He lived and worked in Russia and the former Soviet Union for nearly 20 years between 1989 and 2014, including postings in Moscow with the AP and Reuters. He has also reported from Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as other parts of Asia, Europe, and the United States.

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