Vladimir Putin Warns Ukraine That Joining NATO is Unacceptable

Russian President Vladimir Putin suggested that it would be unacceptable to Russia if Ukraine joined NATO during an interview Wednesday with Russian state television.

The longtime leader claimed that Ukraine's admittance to the organization would give NATO access to missiles that need just seven minutes to reach Moscow and other points of interest in Russia, the Associated Press reported. He also said that his concern would be similar to a situation where Russian missiles were stationed in Mexico or Canada, allowing them to reach the U.S. in a much shorter amount of time if deployed.

"At least 50 percent of Ukrainian residents don't want entry into NATO and these are smart people," Putin said during the interview. "They understand, they don't want to wind up on the firing line, they don't want to be bargaining chips or cannon fodder."

U.S. President Joe Biden, who will meet Putin at a Geneva summit Wednesday, told Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy during a call that the U.S. support for Ukraine's independence is unmoving. Biden said that Kyiv's position in Russia would be considered when discussing NATO affairs, the Associated Press reported.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

NATO Considerations
Russian paratroopers march the Victory Day military parade in Red Square in Moscow, Russia, marking the 76th anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe. Earlier this year, Russia bolstered its forces near Ukraine and warned Kyiv that it could intervene militarily if Ukrainian authorities try to retake the rebel-controlled east. Moscow also has bristled at NATO’s joint drills with Ukraine, saying they reflect the alliance’s aggressive intentions. Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP Photo

Central and Eastern European nations are anxious about the coming summit meeting between Biden and Putin, wary of what they see as hostile intentions from the Kremlin.

Some in the countries that once were part of the Soviet Union or the Moscow-led Warsaw Pact during the Cold War worry that Washington could scale down support for its allies in the region in a bid to secure a more stable and predictable relationship with Russia.

"I think there have been doubts as to the resoluteness of the present administration to face Russian aggressive actions in a decisive manner," said Witold Rodkiewicz, chief specialist on Russian politics at Warsaw's Center of Eastern Studies, a state-funded think tank that advises the Polish government.

Both Russia and the U.S. have sought to moderate expectations about Wednesday's summit in Geneva, ruling out any breakthroughs amid the worst tensions between the two powers since Soviet times, especially after Moscow's annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula, accusations of Russian interference with U.S. elections and hacking attacks, as well as other strains.

Rodkiewicz, however, noted the White House's decision to waive sanctions against the German company overseeing the prospective Russian-built Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline running under the Baltic Sea to Germany. That project could potentially allow Moscow to bypass Ukraine, Poland and other countries in Eastern and Central Europe that collect transit fees on the energy.

"In a clear, unequivocal way the administration signaled that for them, Europe is Germany basically, and German interests are going to be taken into account, while the interests of other players in Europe are going to be sort of put on the back burner," Rodkiewicz told The Associated Press.

Nowhere else are worries about the summit more acute than in Ukraine. It has been locked in a tense tug-of-war with Russia ever since the annexation of the Crimean Peninsula following the ouster of Ukraine's Moscow-friendly president in 2014 and a Russia-backed separatist insurgency in the country's east — a conflict that has killed more than 14,000.

"Ukraine fears that agreements between Biden and Putin could turn it into a peripheral country," said Vadim Karasev, an independent Kyiv-based political analyst.

Kyiv worries that Nord Stream 2 would deprive it not only of transit fees for pumping Russian gas to Europe but also erode its strategic importance and weaken it politically.

A U.S. failure to block the pipeline would mark "a personal loss for President Biden" and a "serious geopolitical victory for the Russian Federation," said Zelenskyy.

In 2008, NATO promised that Ukraine and Georgia would eventually be welcome to join the alliance despite protests from Russia. Four months later, Russia routed Georgia in a five-day war that erupted when the Georgian leadership tried to reclaim control of a separatist region.

Earlier this year, Russia bolstered its forces near Ukraine and warned Kyiv that it could intervene militarily if Ukrainian authorities try to retake the rebel-controlled east. Moscow has since pulled back at least some of its troops, but Ukrainian officials say Russia has kept a massive contingent close to the border.

"The Kremlin has signaled that Ukraine's NATO bid is fraught with a new, hot conflict in Europe, something that Washington definitely doesn't want," Karasev said.

Alex Petriashvili, senior fellow at the Rondeli Foundation think tank in Tbilisi, Georgia, deplored the lack of consensus within NATO on granting Ukraine and Georgia clear plans for membership.

"It is certainly negatively affecting the aspirations of the two countries and gives the advantage to Russia, which is fiercely opposing their membership," Petriashvili said.

Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis argued that Russia seeks "to reestablish control of internal, foreign and security policies of the states in Central and Eastern Europe" that it considers part of its "privileged sphere of interests."

"Like in Soviet times, both conventional and hybrid measures are used to assert control," he told AP.

Russia has rejected allegations it is trying to destabilize the countries or draw them back into its orbit. It has accused the European Union and NATO members that once were part of the Soviet Union or the Warsaw Pact of "Russophobia," casting them as key instigators of Western sanctions that limited Moscow's access to global capital markets and restricted imports of modern technology.

Landsbergis has shrugged off concerns that Washington could leave its Central and Eastern European allies in the cold.

"We have no reasons to doubt our closest trans-Atlantic ally," Landsbergis told AP. "The Biden administration has on numerous occasions underscored its commitment to work in close coordination with its European allies."

Latvia's top diplomat, Edgars Rinkevics, has similarly emphasized that Washington "steadfastly remains the closest ally" and "plays a key role in European security."

Ondrej Ditrych, director of the Institute of International Relations think-tank, also said he expects Biden to take a firm stance in Geneva.

"Biden is not naive, even as ahead of the summit the administration seems to make overtures to make Russia amenable to discussing strategic issues in earnest," he said in Prague. "I would not be worried that a détente that would be detrimental to Central and Eastern Europe countries would be in the making."

Some others aren't so optimistic.

"The real reason to worry is that perhaps Putin might come out of this meeting encouraged by what he sees on the other side, and that might make him bolder to press his advantages in a regional context," said Rodkiewicz, the Warsaw-based analyst.

Putin's Warning
Russian President Vladimir Putin attends the launching ceremony of the Gazprom's Amur Gas Processing Plant, via a video conference, at the Novo-Ogaryovo state residence, outside Moscow, on June 9, 2021. Sergei Ilyin/AFP via Getty Images