Putin’s Week: Facing the Expansion of NATO, the Unity of the West in Ukraine

It has not been an easy week for Russian President Vladimir Putin.

He made his first foreign trip since the invasion of Ukraine to strengthen relations with troublesome Central Asian allies. He watched as NATO declared Moscow its main enemy and invited Russia’s neighbors Sweden and Finland to join the alliance. And he had to deny that his troops had again attacked a civilian target in Ukraine.

At a series of summits in Europe this week against a show of Western unity about Ukraine, Putin has sought to use the moves of the US and its allies as evidence of their hostile plans, and he vowed the offensive against its neighboring Russian country, now in his fifth month.

Putin has long described NATO’s expansion into Russia’s borders as the biggest security threat to his country. When he sent troops to Ukraine on February 24, he cited increasingly close military ties between Kiev and the West as a key reason for his action.

Russia’s aggression against its neighbor has helped bolster Western unity, with allies offering billions of dollars in weapons and aid to Kiev and criticizing Russia with unprecedented sanctions that have frozen its hard currency reserves, targeted oil and other key experts and have banned its aircraft from European airspace.

The invasion also prompted NATO to deploy more troops and weapons on its members’ territory in Eastern Europe and encouraged Sweden and Finland to renounce their neutrality and seek NATO membership.

At its summit Wednesday in Madrid, the alliance formally invited the two nations to join, declaring Russia the “most important and immediate threat” to the peace and security of its members.

Putin, who visited Turkmenistan on Wednesday to attend a Caspian Sea summit with three former Soviet countries and Iran, responded by saying NATO’s actions proved its anti-Russian focus, while admitting that his action was Western. allies helped strengthen their ranks.

At the Ashgabat summit, Putin and other participants did not mention the war in Ukraine in their public remarks. In a communiqué after the talks, they emphasized their agreement to ban foreign military personnel from the Caspian Sea and underlined a pledge not to offer their territory for aggression against another country on its shores.

During a meeting with Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi on the sidelines of the summit, Putin emphasized the “strategic” ties between Moscow and Tehran.

Speaking to reporters in Turkmenistan, Putin accused the US “has been looking for a long time for an external enemy, for a threat that would help rally allies,” adding that “Iran wasn’t good enough for that role, and Russia suited a lot.” better.”

“We’ve given them the opportunity to unite all allies,” Putin said, pointing out that NATO’s summit decisions provide new evidence that the Western group is “a relic of the Cold War, intended to serve as a tool of US foreign policy to rein in its satellites.”

Before the war, Russia pushed for binding guarantees that would hinder NATO’s expansion into Ukraine and other ex-Soviet countries, and demanded a reversal of the military alliance’s deployment in Eastern Europe. The US and its allies firmly rejected the demands, emphasizing that a key alliance principle is that membership is open to any eligible country and no outsiders have veto power.

At the same time, Washington and NATO offered to discuss arms control, confidence-building measures, greater transparency and risk reduction – issues Moscow dismissed as secondary to its main security demands.

Until the invasion, the Kremlin denied having any plans to attack, but warned the West that NATO’s expansion into Ukraine and other ex-Soviet countries is a “red line” that should not be crossed.

Putin claimed that the West had “conned, shamelessly defrauded” Moscow by making verbal commitments in the 1990s not to expand NATO eastwards and then expanding it to include former Soviet bloc countries in Central and Eastern Europe and the ex-Soviet republics in the Baltic States.

On Thursday, he spoke with his usual resentment over what he described as Western attempts to discourage Ukraine from sitting down for talks with Russia to negotiate an end to hostilities.

“Calls for Ukraine to continue fighting and to stop further negotiations confirm our belief that the united West and NATO do not care about Ukraine or the interests of the Ukrainian people, and that their goal is to protect their own interests.” said Putin. † “The leading NATO members are using the Ukrainian people to strengthen their positions and their role in the world, reaffirm their hegemony and their imperial ambitions.”

Responding to NATO’s invitation to Finland and Sweden, Putin dismissed the Western description of the move as a major defeat for Russia.

“As for the assumption that we fought against NATO’s expansion into Ukraine, but now that we have Sweden and Finland to deal with, there is no substance behind that at all, because to us Finland and Sweden joining NATO is not the same thing at all as Ukraine’s potential membership,” he said.

Sweden and Finland are free to do as they please, he said, noting that “we will have to respond for a fee if military contingents and infrastructure are deployed there and create the same threats to the areas where they were created for us.”

He said Russia has no territorial disputes with those countries, unlike Ukraine, which has expressed its intention to reclaim Crimea that Russia annexed in 2014 and regain control of Moscow-backed separatist regions to the east. , known as the Donbas.

“Ukraine is a very different matter,” Putin said. “They turned Ukraine into an anti-Russia, a beachhead because it was trying to destabilize Russia.”

He praised his troops in Ukraine as “heroes” protecting Russia’s security and said the “special military operation” will continue until the goals of “liberate Donbas, protect its people and create conditions that will guarantee the security of Russia itself.” .

Putin also denied that Russian forces attacked a busy shopping center in the central Ukrainian city of Kremenchuk, saying his country is not making civilian facilities and claiming the airstrike targeted a nearby weapons depot, echoing comments from his military officials.

But that was disputed by Ukrainian officials and witnesses, who said a Russian missile hit the mall directly, killing at least 18 people, injuring dozens and missing 20 others. Earlier in the war, Russia hit a hospital, theater, residential buildings and a train station full of fugitive civilians.

Putin said actions in Ukraine are “going according to plan” and “our forces are moving forward and achieving objectives set for the specific period of the engagement,” adding that he would not rush the operation to minimize losses.

US director of national intelligence Avril Haines said Putin has apparently overcome disappointment at failing to defeat Ukraine quickly and can now hope that if Russia succeeds in crushing the Ukrainian army in Donbas, “it will lead to a slump in the Ukrainian resistance.” and that they get more opportunities as a result.”

Associated Press writer Eric Tucker in Washington contributed.

Follow AP’s coverage of the war in Ukraine at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine