Putin says Russia’s interests ‘non-negotiable’

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Russian President Vladimir Putin said Wednesday the country’s interests were non-negotiable, as Moscow massed more than 150,000 troops on the borders with Ukraine and the West punished Russia with new sanctions.

In a video address to mark the Defender of the Fatherland Day, a public holiday in the country, Putin congratulated the Russian military and praised the battle-readiness of the army after he signalled plans to send troops to Ukraine.

“Our country is always open for direct and honest dialogue, for the search for diplomatic solutions to the most complex problems,” Putin said.

But he added: “The interests of Russia, the security of our citizens, are non-negotiable for us.”

Putin spoke after parliament’s upper house, the Federation Council, on Tuesday evening gave him unanimous approval to deploy “peacekeepers” to two breakaway Ukrainian regions now recognised by Moscow as independent and potentially into other parts of Ukraine.

On Tuesday night, Russia said it had established diplomatic relations “at the level of embassies” with the separatist-controlled regions, which broke away from Kyiv in 2014 in a conflict that cost 14,000 lives.

Moscow also said it would soon evacuate diplomatic personnel from Ukraine to “protect their lives.”

Speaking to journalists Tuesday evening, Putin set out a number of stringent conditions if the West wanted to de-escalate the crisis, saying pro-Western Ukraine should drop its NATO membership ambitions and maintain neutrality.

US President Joe Biden on Tuesday announced tough new sanctions against Russia for “beginning” an invasion of Ukraine but said there was still time to avoid war.

Japan and Australia followed suit early Wednesday with their own stringent penalties for Moscow and individuals connected with the aggression against Ukraine, with Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison targeting members of Russia’s security council for “behaving like thugs and bullies.”

Biden announced what he called the “first tranche” of sanctions, including steps to starve Russia of financing and target financial institutions and the country’s “elites”.

But he left the door open to a final effort at diplomacy to avert a full-scale Russian invasion.

“There’s no question that Russia is the aggressor, so we’re clear-eyed about the challenges we’re facing,” the president said.

Biden’s address followed a wave of sanctions announced by Britain and the European Union after Putin recognised the self-declared Donetsk and Lugansk separatist regions this week.

Germany also announced it was halting certification of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia.

Moscow said the sanctions regime would backfire.

The US-led sanctions will “hurt the global financial and energy markets,” Anatoly Antonov, Russia’s ambassador to the United States, said in a Facebook post, adding that ordinary Americans will “feel the full consequences of rising prices”.

‘Rejection of diplomacy’

Putin’s plans remained unclear Wednesday, but Western officials have been warning for weeks he has been preparing an all-out invasion of Ukraine, a move that could spark a catastrophic war in Europe.

The Biden administration signalled it no longer believes Russia is serious about avoiding conflict, with Secretary of State Antony Blinken cancelling a meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov scheduled for Thursday.

Speaking to reporters on Tuesday, Putin said that Moscow had recognised the independence of Ukraine’s separatist regions within their administrative borders, including territory controlled by Kyiv.

He added that Western-brokered peace agreements on Ukraine’s conflict no longer existed and stressed that the deployment of Russian troops would “depend on the specific situation… on the ground.”

“The best solution… would be if the current Kyiv authorities themselves refused to join NATO and maintained neutrality,” Putin said.

NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg said the alliance had “every indication” that Moscow “continues to plan for a full-scale attack on Ukraine.”

Kyiv showed no sign of backing down, with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba meeting Biden to appeal for more military aid.

Russia’s recognition move prompted an emphatic condemnation from United Nations chief Antonio Guterres, who called it “a death blow to the Minsk Agreements endorsed by the (UN) Security Council.”

‘Further military aggression’

Biden said Washington would continue to supply “defensive” weapons to Ukraine and deploy more US troops to reinforce NATO allies in Eastern Europe.

Kyiv recalled its top diplomat from Moscow as President Volodymyr Zelensky warned that Putin’s recognition of the breakaway regions heralded “further military aggression” against Ukraine.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said EU foreign ministers “unanimously agreed on an initial sanctions package,” as he also cancelled a meeting with his Russian counterpart.

Britain slapped sanctions on five Russian banks and three billionaires, and Canada followed suit with similar measures.

By Anna SMOLCHENKO

© Agence France-Presse