Russian President Vladimir Putin sought to turn the tables on the West at his annual end-of-year news conference Thursday, blaming the United States and its allies for soaring tensions over Ukraine and suggesting “the ball is in their court” to respond to Moscow’s demands.
The Russian leader said it was up to the U.S. and NATO to swiftly provide the security guarantees Moscow demanded last week, though he insisted he doesn’t want a fresh armed conflict.
“The ball is in their court,” Putin told more than 500 Russian and foreign reporters in attendance at the marathon event. “They need to respond to us with something.”
Russia has massed some 100,000 troops along the Ukrainian border, prompting fears of an invasion as early as next month, but has repeatedly denied that it has any plans to attack its neighbor.
Putin sounded optimistic about the response to the security demands issued by the Kremlin last week, which called for NATO to halt its eastward expansion as well as for legally-binding security guarantees that certain offensive weapons will not be deployed to Russia’s neighboring countries.
The Russian leader said Washington appeared ready to begin negotiations around its proposals early next year in Geneva, though it is unlikely the U.S. and its allies will give the guarantees he wants.
Moscow wants unconditional guarantees of its security now and in the future, and won’t accept the expansion of NATO eastward to include Ukraine, he said.
Offering an aggressively Russian view of history to back up these security concerns, Putin said Ukraine was “created” by Vladimir Lenin, the founder of the Soviet Union. He also accused NATO of having “fooled” Russia with five waves of expansion since the Cold War and scorned the U.S. for inching closer to Russia’s “doorstep,” adding that it sometimes seems Moscow and the West live in “different worlds.”
“You are demanding guarantees from me,” Putin said. “You should be giving guarantees. And immediately, now. ”
Secretary of State Antony Blinken said earlier this week that Washington was working with its European allies to address what he called “Russian aggression” with diplomacy, but said President Joe Biden opposes the kind of guarantees sought by Putin.
Biden warned Putin in a virtual call earlier this month that Russia will face “severe consequences” if it attacks Ukraine.
Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014, drawing condemnation and sanctions from the West. Shortly after Moscow backed a separatist rebellion in the country’s east, where fighting has killed over 14,000 people and devastated Ukraine’s industrial heartland.
Putin has held the marathon event, where he answers questions on a range of subjects, every year since he became president in 2001. Since 2004, each news conference has been at least three hours long, with the longest coming in last year at 4.5 hours.
This year’s event comes amid growing concerns about the military buildup, but also as the Kremlin faces internal challenges in the shape of surging Covid-19 numbers, economic recovery and a crackdown on dissent that has drawn international criticism.
The annual news conference is a pillar of Putin’s domestic image building, and something of a fixture in the holiday season in Russia, designed to portray the 69-year-old president as a transparent and caring leader.
Before Putin addressed the media Thursday, Russia’s Covid death toll passed the 600,000 mark, according to a Reuters tally. The country has struggled to contain cases and has the third-highest death toll in the world, with low vaccination take-up harming its ability to emerge from the pandemic.
In the last year, the country has also faced the largest crackdown on the free press and political dissent since the Soviet era, with a growing number of opposition political figures and media outlets facing “foreign agent” designations, and Russia’s opposition leader Alexei Navalny imprisoned on what his supporters say are trumped-up charges after being poisoned with a nerve agent.
Matthew Bodner , Associated Press and Reuters contributed.