Putin Argues U.S., Talk of NATO Expansion to Blame for Increased Tensions With Ukraine

Russian President Vladimir Putin reiterated his push against a proposed NATO expansion amid a surge of NATO forces along the Russian-Ukrainian border.

In a meeting with the Russian Defense Ministry Board on Tuesday, Putin said it is critical that NATO denies neighboring Ukraine membership due to heightened tensions throughout the region. He said the tensions were primarily caused by NATO and the U.S.

"What is happening now, tensions that are building up in Europe, is their [U.S. and NATO's] fault every step of the way," he said during the meeting. "Russia has been forced to respond at every step. The situation kept worsening and worsening, deteriorating and deteriorating. And here we are today, in a situation when we're forced to resolve it somehow."

Russian officials have been pressing Western forces to promise that they will not expand into Ukraine. NATO and the U.S. have said that there are no such plans. However, Putin urged during his Tuesday meeting that it is not enough to just take them at their word. He stressed that "long-term, legally binding guarantees" should take priority over "verbal assurances, words and promises" that are currently being given.

"Armed conflicts, bloodshed is not our choice, and we don't want such developments," Putin said. "We want to resolve issues by political and diplomatic means."

Putin 12 21
Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday reiterated his demand for guarantees from the U.S. and its allies that NATO will not expand eastward, blaming the West for current tensions in Europe. Above, Putin addresses an extended meeting of the Russian Defense Ministry Board at the National Defense Control Center in Moscow on December 21, 2021. Mikhail Tereshchenko, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP

Putin's speech came just days after Moscow submitted draft security documents demanding that NATO deny membership to Ukraine and other former Soviet countries and roll back the alliance's military deployments in Central and Eastern Europe—bold ultimatums that are almost certain to be rejected.

The demands—contained in a proposed Russia-U.S. security treaty and a security agreement between Moscow and NATO—were drafted amid soaring tensions over a Russian troop buildup near Ukraine that has stoked fears of a possible invasion. Russia has denied it has plans to attack its neighbor.

Putin charged Tuesday that if U.S. and NATO missile systems appear in Ukraine, it will take those missiles only minutes to reach Moscow.

Putin noted that NATO has expanded eastward since the late 1990s while giving assurances that Russia's worries were groundless.

Russia's relations with the U.S. sank to post-Cold War lows after it annexed the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine in 2014—gaining control over long coastlines of the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov—and backed a separatist insurgency in eastern Ukraine that still controls territory there. Tensions reignited in recent weeks after Moscow massed tens of thousands of troops near Ukraine's border.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu charged Tuesday that more than 120 staff of U.S. private military companies are currently operating in two villages in war-torn eastern Ukraine, training Ukrainian troops and setting up firing positions in residential buildings and different facilities.

Putin said the U.S. "should understand we have nowhere to retreat."

"What they are now trying to do and plan to do at Ukraine's territory, it's not thousands of kilometers away, it's happening right at the doorstep of our house," he said.

Putin added that Moscow hopes "constructive, meaningful talks with a visible end result—and within a certain time frame—that would ensure equal security for all."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Defense Ministry Board Meeting
Russian President Vladimir Putin listens to Chief of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces Valery Gerasimov as they sit in front of a huge screen showing the map of Ukraine during the annual meeting of the Defence Ministry board in Moscow on December 21, 2021. Photo by Mikhail Tereshchenko/Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images