MOSCOW: President Vladimir Putin warned on Tuesday that Russia was prepared to take military steps in response to “unfriendly” Western actions over the Ukraine conflict, in a sharp escalation of rhetoric.
The Russian president has for weeks accused the United States and the Washington-led Nato military alliance of stoking tensions near Moscow’s borders, but these were his first comments hinting at potential conflict.
Putin told defence ministry officials that if the West continued its “obviously aggressive stance” Russia would take “appropriate retaliatory military-technical measures”.
Russia “will react toughly to unfriendly steps”, he said, adding that he wanted to underscore that, “we have every right to do so”.
The United States has been sounding the alarm since mid-November that Moscow could be planning a large-scale attack on its ex-Soviet neighbour Ukraine and has warned Putin of unprecedented sanctions.
Western governments have accused Moscow of amassing some 100,000 troops near its border with eastern Ukraine, where Kiev has been fighting pro-Russia separatists since 2014.
Russia denies plotting an invasion and has demanded legal guarantees over its security from the United States and Nato, demanding the alliance stop an eastward expansion.
Last week Moscow presented demands to the United States and Nato saying the alliance must not admit new members or establish military bases in ex-Soviet countries.
Putin said that Russia was “extremely concerned” over what he said was US missile deployments in Poland and Romania, which he said would soon be capable of launching Tomahawk cruise missiles.
“If this infrastructure moves further — if US and Nato missile systems appear in Ukraine — then their approach time to Moscow will be reduced to seven or 10 minutes,” he said, adding that the time would be cut even shorter with hypersonic weapons. Despite hinting at conflict, Putin said that Russia wants to avoid “bloodshed”.
“We want to resolve issues by political and diplomatic means,” he said.
But the Russian leader repeated grievances over Washington’s support for Ukraine, which includes training Kiev’s forces and committing to them more than $2.5 billion.
Those actions, Putin said, are taking place “at the doorstep of our house”.
Even if Moscow receives US security guarantees, Putin said he would be wary of them because “the United States easily withdraws from all international treaties that for one reason or another become uninteresting to them”.
The West has warned that Putin could use the pretext of provocations in Ukraine to launch a full-scale attack.
Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu accused Washington of plotting “provocations” in eastern Ukraine. He said US mercenaries had brought “reserves of an unknown chemical component” to two Ukrainian towns on the frontline of the war with separatists.
Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky meanwhile voiced frustration over Nato’s reluctance to speed up Kiev’s membership in the alliance.