Putin sees ‘positive’ US reaction to Russia security proposals
President Vladimir Putin said Thursday that Washington’s willingness to discuss Russia’s security proposals to curb NATO’s eastward expansion was “positive”, as fears mount in the West over a major military escalation in Ukraine.
The Kremlin has grown increasingly insistent that the West and NATO are encroaching dangerously close to Russia’s borders.
Moscow presented the West with sweeping security demands last week, saying NATO must not admit new members and seeking to bar the United States from establishing new bases in former Soviet republics.
Washington responded that it is willing to discuss the security proposals — within weeks according to a US official — and Putin said Thursday that Washington is ready for talks at the start of next year in Geneva.
“The start of negotiations announced (for) January will allow us to move forward,” Putin said at his annual end-of-year press conference, adding that representatives from both sides have been appointed.
“I hope that this is the first positive reaction.”
A senior US official said Washington was “ready to engage in diplomacy as soon as early January”, both bilaterally and through “multiple channels”.
“There are some issues that Russia has raised that we believe we can discuss,” the US official said, though adding there were “others that they know very well we will never agree to”.
Putin’s conciliatory tone Thursday came after tensions peaked this week when he vowed that Russia would take “appropriate retaliatory” military steps in response to what he called the West’s “aggressive stance”.
He also announced a new arsenal of hypersonic missiles that he has previously described as “invincible” were nearing combat readiness.
‘Russia can’t be defeated’
Tensions have been building since mid-November when Washington sounded the alarm over a massive Russian troop build-up on Ukraine’s border and claimed that Putin is planning an invasion.
The West has long accused the Kremlin of providing direct military support to pro-Russia separatists in eastern Ukraine, who seized two regions shortly after Moscow annexed Crimea in 2014.
The Russia denies the claims and Putin has suggested that the conflict, which has claimed over 13,000 lives, is genocidal.
In a phone call with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, the EU’s top diplomat Josep Borrell said Moscow should “de-escalate” the situation and respect Ukraine’s sovereignty.
Putin on Thursday also addressed an unprecedented wave of arrests against voices critical of the Kremlin, saying the crackdown is aimed at curbing foreign influence.
“I remind you of what our adversaries have been saying for centuries: Russia cannot be defeated, it can only be destroyed from within,” he said.
He added that it was domestic dissent that brought about the collapse of the Soviet Union 30 years ago this month.
Putin’s annual press extravaganza coincided with a high-profile court case in Moscow where the country’s most prominent rights group, Memorial, is on trial for violations of “foreign agent” legislation.
The case follows other key trials, including the jailing of Russia’s most prominent opposition figure Alexei Navalny and the closure of his anti-corruption and political organisations on extremism convictions.
“There have always been, are and will be conmen,” Putin said of his main domestic opponent. “There is no need to commit crimes.”
During the marathon press conference lasting nearly four hours, Putin addressed questions ranging from the coronavirus and the Beijing Olympics to Russian Santa Claus and transgender people.
It began with pandemic-related questions, including on Russia’s low vaccination rate. As of Thursday, only 44 percent of the population had been fully vaccinated, despite several locally made jabs having been available for free since last year.
Putin called the situation worrying and once again urged majority vaccine-sceptic Russians to get inoculated.
He also denounced as “unacceptable” a decision by several Western nations led by the United States not to send diplomatic representatives to the Beijing Olympics in February, saying sport should not be tainted by politics.
He also repeated his stance of guarding traditional and family values, which has seen him complain that Western liberal values have become obsolete.
“I support the traditional approach that a woman is a woman, and a man is a man,” Putin said, adding he hoped that Russians had enough defences “against this obscurantism”.
On a lighter note, Putin thanked Father Frost — the Russian Santa Claus who distributes gifts on New Year’s Eve — for helping him become president.
Putin became president on New Year’s Eve in 1999, when Russia’s first post-Soviet leader Boris Yeltsin unexpectedly resigned and Putin — who was then prime minister — took on the role.