Putin Blames the West for Talk of ‘War, War, War’

At a traditional year-end news conference, in comments intended to sway a domestic audience, President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia said his country was defending historically Russian territories.

At a traditional year-end news conference, in comments intended to sway a domestic audience, President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia said his country was defending historically Russian territories.

MOSCOW — President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia spoke in stark terms on Thursday of rising military tensions in Eastern Europe, saying that there was talk of “war, war, war,” but that Moscow was not to blame because it was defending historically Russian territories.

Mr. Putin’s comments, at a traditional year-end news conference, were being closely watched after a drumbeat of warnings from Moscow about a potential escalation of military conflict in Ukraine. Two days earlier, Mr. Putin told a gathering of security officials that he was ready to take “military technical measures,” a reference to a possible use of force, if Russia’s security requests went unmet.

As he has before, the Russian leader placed blame for the tensions squarely on the West and Ukraine’s Western-leaning government, airing grievances going back years. But he also noted what he called a “positive” signal from the Biden administration that it was willing to hold talks on Russian security concerns starting in January.

Still, Mr. Putin said Russia would expect quick answers on its demands. “It was the United States that came with its rockets to our home, to the doorstep of our home,” he said of NATO expansion. “And you demand from me some guarantees. You should give us guarantees. You! And right away, right now.”

Mr. Putin’s comments largely echoed a list of demands laid out last week by Russian diplomats as Russian troops mass near the border with Ukraine.

Mr. Putin’s remarks were directed at a wide television audience in Russia, and he focused on what he described as threats to Russians and Russian speakers inside Ukraine.

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A Ukrainian soldier this month on the front lines in Avdiivka, in eastern Ukraine.Credit…Brendan Hoffman for The New York Times

“Now, they tell us, ‘war, war, war,'” Mr. Putin said of the West, conveying the sense that a Western-aligned Ukraine, not Russia, intended to set off conflict. “The impression is they are planning” a military operation, he said. “And we are warned in advance, ‘Don’t get involved, don’t meddle, don’t defend these people.’ If you defend, these sanctions will follow.”

Russia has already intervened militarily in Ukraine. After street protesters deposed a pro-Russia president in 2014, Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula and fomented a separatist uprising in two provinces in eastern Ukraine. At least 13,000 soldiers and civilians on both sides have died in a conflict that has continued on Ukraine’s eastern border.

As reporters held up signs asking for comment on Russia’s deployment of troops near the Ukrainian border, Mr. Putin began his appearance by focusing on domestic issues like the economy and the coronavirus. He asserted that Russia had handled the economic challenges of the virus better than other major economies, though he acknowledged a cost in lives lost and a drop in life expectancy last year. He also noted what he said were positive economic indicators, including good results in construction and a good harvest.

When finally asked for a “realistic prognosis” of whether Russians could expect a war this winter, Mr. Putin said he would try to answer “in a maximally short way,” but nonetheless laid out a historical justification for possible use of force, going back more than 100 years.

He argued that lands that should be seen as historically part of Russia were included in the Soviet-era boundaries of Ukraine. After the Soviet breakup, Mr. Putin said, Moscow acquiesced to their loss, so long as Ukraine was neutral. But he said Russia could not tolerate the basing of foreign militaries in these areas.

“They are creating on this territory an anti-Russia, with the constant sending over of contemporary weapons, brainwashing the population,” Mr. Putin said. “Imagine the historical perspective of Russia for living from now on, to be always looking over our shoulders, what is going on over there?”

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Russian military vehicles during exercises on Wednesday in the Rostov region, on Ukraine’s eastern border with Russia.Credit…Sergey Pivovarov/Reuters

He had argued similar points in an essay last summer, and in speeches since. What distinguished Mr. Putin’s comments on Thursday was their orientation to a domestic audience in a question-and-answer format broadcast live on Russian television channels.

United States intelligence agencies have said that Russia has tens of thousands of troops near the Ukrainian border, with plans to amass an invasion force of up to 175,000 soldiers. They have also said it is not yet clear whether Mr. Putin has decided to invade.

Russian diplomats detailed their demands on Eastern Europe — including a written pledge from NATO not to expand east — in two ultimatums last week directed at the United States and the alliance.

Understand the Escalating Tensions Over Ukraine

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A brewing conflict. Antagonism between Ukraine and Russia has been simmering since 2014, when the Russian military crossed into Ukrainian territory, annexing Crimea and whipping up a rebellion in the east. A tenuous cease-fire was reached in 2015, but peace has been elusive.

A spike in hostilities. Russia has recently been building up forces near its border with Ukraine, and the Kremlin’s rhetoric toward its neighbor has hardened. Concern grew in late October, when Ukraine used an armed drone to attack a howitzer operated by Russian-backed separatists.

Ominous warnings. Russia called the strike a destabilizing act that violated the cease-fire agreement, raising fears of a new intervention in Ukraine that could draw the United States and Europe into a new phase of the conflict.

The Kremlin’s position. President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, who has increasingly portrayed NATO’s eastward expansion as an existential threat to his country, said that Moscow’s military buildup was a response to Ukraine’s deepening partnership with the alliance.

A measured approach. President Biden has said he is seeking a stable relationship with Russia. So far, his administration is focusing on maintaining a dialogue with Moscow, while seeking to develop deterrence measures in concert with European countries.

The proposals suggested establishing a Cold War-style security arrangement in Europe based on spheres of influence. While NATO rejected the demand to close its doors to new members, the Biden administration has agreed to negotiate broadly, offering a possible path to unwinding the tensions.

Analysts have also weighed the possibility that Mr. Putin is looking for concessions on a range of issues, even some not directly tied to security. These include energy and pipeline negotiations in Europe.

That means that what Russia wants, exactly, has become something of a guessing game — leaving diplomats and security analysts hanging on every word from Mr. Putin this winter.

Mr. Putin’s marathon year-end news conferences are a longtime tradition, meant to demonstrate his stamina and authority as he answers questions for hours on end. They have also been a stage for policy pronouncements.

In his remarks on the pandemic, Mr. Putin said he had no plans to impose fines on or to criminally prosecute people hesitant to be vaccinated, though Russia has one of the lowest levels of vaccination in Europe, at 56 percent of the population. The government has not introduced vaccine mandates, and Mr. Putin said on Thursday that mandates would be counterproductive.

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October in Moscow. Mr. Putin said he had no plans to impose fines on or to criminally prosecute people hesitant to be vaccinated against the coronavirus.Credit…Emile Ducke for The New York Times

“We need to relate to people with respect, despite their positions,” he said, “and to patiently explain” the need to inoculate.

Possibilities for an escalation with Ukraine abound. Mr. Putin, speaking at an event with Defense Minister Sergey K. Shoigu on Tuesday, ruminated on the possibility that the United States had long-term plans to deploy hypersonic missiles in Ukraine, something that the United States has never suggested it intends to do.

“What they are now doing on the territory of Ukraine, or trying to do, or planning to do, is not thousands of kilometers from our national borders,” Mr. Putin said. “It’s on the doorstep of our home. They just have to understand that we have nowhere left to retreat.”

Anton Troianovski reported from Moscow, and Andrew E. Kramer from Kyiv, Ukraine.

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