Russian President Vladimir Putin said the West had “ignored” his country’s security concerns and warned that if Ukraine was allowed to join the Western military alliance it could result in a war between Russia and NATO.
Mr. Putin, who was making his first public comments on Ukraine in nearly six weeks, accused the United States of being less interested in ensuring the security of Ukraine than it was in containing Russia.
The Russian leader raised a hypothetical scenario where Ukraine, after joining NATO, tried to regain the Crimean Peninsula by force. Mr. Putin ordered the invasion and annexation of Crimea in 2014, a move Canada and the rest of the international community views as illegal.
“Let’s imagine Ukraine is a NATO state and they start this operation [to retake Crimea], So now do we have to start a war against the NATO alliance? Did anyone think about that? I don’t think so,” Mr. Putin said at a joint press conference in Moscow with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban. The event was carefully scripted, with only a handful of selected Russian and Hungarian reporters invited .
As Mr. Putin spoke, an estimated 130,000 Russian troops remained massed on three sides of Ukraine. Even more menacing than the troop figure, military analysts say, is the amount of tanks, artillery and other equipment that Russia has positioned near Ukraine’s eastern border, as well as in Crimea, to the south, and in Belarus, a close Russian ally directly to the north of Ukraine.
Canada on Tuesday changed its travel advisory to warn against all travel to Ukraine “due to ongoing Russian threats and the risk of armed conflict.” The updated statement on the official Canadian government website advises that “if you are in Ukraine, you should leave while commercial means are available.” The previous advisory had advised against all “non-essential” travel to the country.
Last week Canada ordered non-essential diplomatic staff to leave Ukraine, as well as the families of diplomats stationed in the country (although additional diplomats are also being flown in to bolster sections of the Embassy that are dealing directly with the crisis). Canadian military trainers working to train the Ukrainian military have had their movements newly restricted to the west of the country.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, on a Tuesday visit to Kyiv, accused Mr. Putin of “holding a gun… to the head of Ukraine” in an effort to force a change to the security arrangements of Europe.
“It’s about the whole European security architecture, because be in no doubt about what I think President Putin is trying to achieve here. I think that he is trying, by holding a gun as it were to the head of Ukraine, by intimidating Ukraine, to get us to change the way we look at (European security),,” Mr. Johnson said at a press conference alongside Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. “This is a clear and present danger. We see large numbers of troops massing, we see preparations for all kinds of operations that are consistent with an imminent military campaign.”
Britain, which has sent several planeloads of anti-tank missiles to Ukraine in recent weeks, is one of a handful of Western nations that have hastened military support to Ukraine’s overmatched military. Canada, so far, has sent only non-lethal aid – as well as an additional 60 military trainers – despite intense pressure from the 1.3 million-strong Ukrainian-Canadian diaspora.
No foreign government has said they will fight alongside Ukraine in the event of a Russian invasion.
The Russian build-up has sparked a frenzy of high-level diplomacy, culminating in the US and NATO replying in writing last week to Moscow’s main demand for a guarantee that Ukraine will never join the alliance. The Kremlin has also called for NATO to withdraw its troops and weapons from much of Eastern Europe.
On Tuesday, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken held a call with Russian Foreign Minster Sergey Lavrov. According to a US readout of the call, Mr. Blinken told Mr. Lavrov that “If President Putin truly does not intend war or regime change… this is the time to pull back troops and heavy weaponry and engage in a serious discussion.”
While the contents of the letters from the US and NATO have not been made public, the US has said they contained no major compromises. On Tuesday, Mr. Putin said that it was clear that “Russia’s core security concerns were ignored.”
Russia, he said, had been promised at the end of the Cold War that NATO “would not move a single inch to the east” – a claim disputed by many Western historians. NATO has repeatedly expanded eastwards since then, growing from a 16-country alliance in 1991 to 30 countries today as it gained members that once deferred to the Soviet Union.
“They said one thing, they did another thing… we were basically swindled. We were lied to,” Mr. Putin said. “Now they say that the next step is Ukraine.”
Mr. Putin has repeatedly mourned the 1991 collapse of the USSR – an empire many believe he seeks to at least partially restore. He charged that the US was less interested in Ukrainian security than it was in “hindering the development of Russia.”
Ukraine, he said, was “just a tool” to accomplish that aim. “You can do it in various ways. You can drag us into some kind of armed conflict and, by using your allies in Europe to impose these hardline sanctions against us that the United States is talking about. Or they can drag Ukraine into NATO.”
While Mr. Putin’s speech was long on grievances, it was short on statements about what Russia intended to do if its security demands were not met, or any kind of timelines. He also held the door open for a negotiated solution, pointing the possibility that French President Emmanuel Macron will soon visit Moscow for talks.
Meanwhile, Mr. Orban, who praised his country’s warm relations with Russia, appeared to undermine the West’s position on the Ukraine crisis by suggesting that Hungary – which is a member of both the European Union and NATO – did not favor the use of sanctions against Mr. Putin and his regime.
Canada, the US, and the EU have warned they will impose harsh and coordinated sanctions against Mr. Putin and his inner circle should Russia attack Ukraine. Mr. Orban, however, called sanctions “a tool doomed to failure,” and said the Western sanctions imposed on Moscow following the annexation of Crimea had caused more damage to Hungary than to Russia.
On Tuesday, Mr. Zelensky signed a decree to increase the size of the Ukrainian army by 100,000 soldiers over the next three years, and to increase salaries. Mr. Zelensky, who has previously criticized Western governments for creating “panic” by speaking of the possibility of imminent war, said the moves to boost the country’s military was not related to the immediate situation.
Speaking at the press conference with Mr. Johnson, Mr. Zelensky said no one could predict what would happen next in the crisis. He warned that a Russian attack on his country would lead to “tragedy and a full-scale war in Europe.”