President Vladimir Putin said Thursday that Washington’s willingness to discuss Russia’s security proposals aimed at curbing NATO’s eastward expansion was “positive”, as fears mount in the West over a major military escalation in Ukraine.
The Kremlin has grown increasingly insistent that the West and NATO are encroaching dangerously close to Russia’s borders.
Moscow presented the West with sweeping security demands last week, saying NATO must not admit new members and barring the United States from establishing new bases in former Soviet countries.
Washington responded that it is willing to discuss the security proposals, but disagrees with part of them and insists European allies must be part of the talks.
“The ball is in their court. They need to provide us with some answer,” Putin said at his annual end-of-year press conference.
But he added: “Overall we see a positive reaction.”
Putin said Washington is ready for talks at the start of next year in Geneva, adding that representatives from both sides have been appointed.
The growing tensions peaked this week when Putin vowed that Russia would take “appropriate retaliatory” military steps in response to what he called the West’s “aggressive stance”.
He also announced a new arsenal of hypersonic missiles that he has previously described as “invincible” were nearing combat readiness.
– ‘Russia can’t be defeated’ –
Tensions have been slowly building since mid-November when Washington sounded the alarm over a massive Russian troop build-up around Ukraine and accused Putin of planning an invasion.
The West has long accused the Kremlin of providing direct military support to pro-Russia separatists in eastern Ukraine, who seized two regions shortly after Moscow annexed Crimea in 2014.
Russia denies the claims and Putin has suggested that the conflict, which has claimed over 13,000 lives, is genocidal.
In addition to the growing tensions, Putin on Thursday addressed an unprecedented wave of arrests against voices critical of the Kremlin, saying the crackdown is aimed at curbing foreign influence.
“I remind you of what our adversaries have been saying for centuries: Russia cannot be defeated, it can only be destroyed from within,” he said.
He added that it was domestic dissent that brought about the collapse of the Soviet Union 30 years ago this month.
The presser also coincided with a high-profile court case in Moscow where the esteemed rights group Memorial is on trial for violations of “foreign agent” legislation.
The case follows other key trials, including the jailing of Russia’s most prominent opposition figure Alexei Navalny and the closure of his anti-corruption and political organisations on extremism convictions.
“There have always been, are and will be conmen,” Putin said of his main domestic opponent. “There is no need to commit crimes.”
– ‘Faster’ economic recovery –
The presser kicked off with Putin fielding questions on the coronavirus pandemic and its economic fallout.
Rattling off facts and figures to apparently illustrate Russia’s prowess, Putin hailed his country’s response.
“We have recovered much faster than others,” he said, adding he expected growth of around 4.5 percent next year, continuing Russia’s 2021 rebound.
That was largely due to authorities avoiding strict lockdowns, a policy that some say has contributed to over 520,000 Russians dying from the coronavirus, according to a count by state statistic agency Rosstat — more than in any European country.
The deaths have furthered Russia’s steep demographic decline, which has seen the country lose than a million people in less than two years.
Putin called the situation worrying on Thursday and complained about Russia’s level of herd immunity, saying it was at 59.4 percent — a figure calculated by counting both people who had been inoculated and infected.
Authorities have faced a vaccine-sceptic population, and Putin once again urged Russians to get inoculated.
As of Thursday, only 44 percent of the population had been fully vaccinated, despite several homemade jabs having been available for free since last year.