Russian President Vladimir Putin has called on the West to give immediate security guarantees to defuse a crisis prompted by Russia’s military build-up near Ukraine’s borders.
“It’s you who must give us guarantees, and give them immediately, now,” he said in his annual press conference.
Mr Putin has demanded that Nato abandon military activity in Eastern Europe and not admit Ukraine as a member.
He has threatened military measures but denies planning to invade Ukraine.
Ukraine security officials says more than 100,000 Russian troops have been sent close to its borders, and the US has threatened Mr Putin with sanctions “like none he’s ever seen” if Ukraine comes under attack.
The Russian leader said military measures were not his preferred choice and he expressed hope that talks would take place with the US early next year in Geneva, adding: “The ball is in their court, they have to give us some response.”
He has already laid out “red lines” on Ukraine, and he became animated when he was asked on Thursday if he would guarantee that there would be no invasion.
“We didn’t come to the US or UK borders, no, they came to ours,” he said, accusing Nato of cheating Russia with five waves of expansion since the 1990s.
In a list of demands outlined last week, Russia has said it wants Nato to roll back to where it was in 1997, a demand seen as a non-starter for Poland, the Baltics and other Eastern European states that joined the West’s defensive military alliance.
Nato in Eastern Europe map
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Russia invaded Georgia in 2008 and then seized Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, and Moscow is seeking assurances that neither country will be allowed to join Nato.
Extra troops have been moved to Crimea and military exercises are due to take place there. Germany has expressed alarm at Russia’s troop movements and said dialogue was “now essential to try to defuse a major crisis”.
The Baltic republics of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia also fear Russia’s military build-up and Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda has described the current situation as probably “the most dangerous it’s been in 30 years”.
Nato Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said this week he also hoped for talks with Russia early next year but was adamant that Ukraine’s membership of the alliance was up to Nato and Kyiv: “Any dialogue with Russia has of course to respect the core principles which European security has been based on.”
Recent Russian deployments graphic
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Despite heightened tensions around Ukraine’s border, a 2020 ceasefire deal has been renewed in the east of the country. Russian-backed separatists seized large swathes of the east in 2014 and have been in a war with the Ukrainian military ever since.
Ukrainian presidential chief of staff Andriy Yermak hailed the deal brokered by Europe’s OSCE security organisation as a step towards de-escalation.
More than 14,000 people have been killed during seven years of conflict. Although combat ended in 2015, clashes continued to break out and a July 2020 ceasefire was meant to bring the violence to an end.
Ceasefire violations have surged of late, and defence officials in Kyiv accuse Russia of sending 122,000 troops to within 200km (125 miles) of Ukraine’s borders. A further 143,500 are stationed within 400km, they allege.
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Late on Wednesday the two countries along with the Russian-backed rebels agreed with the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe to reinforce the truce. The OSCE aims to prevent conflict and manage crises and has a monitoring mission in eastern Ukraine.
OSCE Ambassador Mikko Kinnunen praised the deal as particularly important as his organisation’s monitors have recorded five times more ceasefire violations this month than in December last year.
On Thursday Ukraine’s joint forces headquarters said no breaches by the separatists had been reported in the past 24 hours.