© Reuters. Service members of the 28th Separate Mechanized Brigade of the Ukrainian Armed Forces take part in coastal defense drills in the Odessa region, Ukraine, in this handout picture released January 28, 2022. Ukrainian Defense Ministry / Handout via REUTERS
By Vladimir Soldatkin and Alexander Marrow
MOSCOW (Reuters) -President Vladimir Putin said on Friday the United States and NATO had not addressed the main security demands in their standoff over Ukraine but that Moscow was ready to keep talking.
Putin offered his first reaction to the US and NATO responses to Russia’s demands in a phone call with French President Emmanuel Macron after weeks of personal public silence on the crisis, in which Russia has massed troops near Ukraine.
The Kremlin quoted Putin as telling Macron he would study the written responses provided by Washington and NATO this week before deciding on further action.
“Attention was drawn to the fact that the US and NATO replies did not take into account the principal concerns,” the Kremlin said.
It listed those concerns as avoiding NATO expansion, not deploying offensive weapons near Russia’s borders and returning NATO’s “military capabilities and infrastructure” to how they were before the former Warsaw Pact states in eastern Europe joined.
“The key issue has been ignored – how the United States and its allies intend to follow the principle of security integrity … that no one should strengthen their security at the expense of another country’s security,” it said.
The United States and its allies have warned Putin that Russia will face tough economic sanctions if he attacks Ukraine.
The measures would build on sanctions imposed since Russia annexed Crimea and backed separatists in eastern Ukraine in 2014, although there are divisions among Western countries over how to respond as Europe is dependent on Russia for energy supplies.
NATO said it was watching closely as Russia, which already has tens of thousands of soldiers near Ukraine’s border, moves troops and military hardware into Belarus for drills.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said the Western military alliance was ready to increase its troop presence in eastern Europe and that a Russian attack could take many forms including a cyber attack, attempted coup or sabotage.
“From the NATO side we are ready to engage in political dialogue. But we’re also ready to respond if Russia chooses an armed conflict confrontation,” Stoltenberg said in Brussels.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov had earlier on Friday sent a conciliatory message while also saying US and Western responses did not satisfy Russia’s main demands.
“If it depends on Russia, then there will be no war. We don’t want wars. But we also won’t allow our interests to be rudely trampled, to be ignored,” he told Russian radio stations.
Lavrov said he expected to meet US Secretary of State Antony Blinken again in the next couple of weeks. Their last meeting, in Geneva https://www.reuters.com/world/top-diplomats-us-russia-meet-geneva-soaring-ukraine-tensions-2022-01-21 on Jan.21, produced no breakthrough but both sides agreed to keep talking.
Lavrov said, without giving details, that the US counter-proposals were better than NATO’s. Russia was studying them and Putin would decide how to respond.
The comments were among the most conciliatory that Moscow has made on the Ukraine crisis, which has escalated into one of the tensest East-West standoffs since the Cold War ended three decades ago.
While the US and NATO responses have not been made public, both have stated they are willing to engage with Moscow on a series of topics, including arms control.
The US ambassador to Moscow, John Sullivan, told reporters that Washington had raised the possibility of “reciprocal transparency measures … including on offensive weapons systems in Ukraine, as well as measures to increase confidence regarding military exercises and maneuvers in Europe.”
He said the size of Russia’s build-up near Ukraine would allow an invasion with little warning, and urged it to pull back its forces.
“It’s the equivalent of if you and I were having a discussion or a negotiation. If I put a gun on the table and say that I come in peace, that’s threatening,” Sullivan said.
Russia has dismissed calls to withdraw, saying it can deploy troops as it sees fit on its own territory.
The head of Germany’s BND foreign intelligence agency told Reuters that Russia was prepared to attack Ukraine but added: “I believe that the decision to attack has not yet been made.”
The Kremlin said Putin would spend a “lot of time” discussing European security issues with Chinese President Xi Jinping when he visits Beijing next week for the opening of the Winter Olympics.
Putin also plans a meeting with German business people, following talks with Italian executives on Wednesday at which he underlined the importance of energy ties between Russia and Italy.