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Moscow open to more talks with West over Ukraine standoff, Putin says

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WATCH: Putin accuses West of ignoring Russian concerns, baiting conflict with Ukraine – Feb 1, 2022

Russian President Vladimir Putin said Tuesday that the U.S. and its allies have ignored Russia’s top security demands but added that Moscow is still open for more talks with the West on easing soaring tensions over Ukraine.

Putin argued that it’s possible to negotiate an end to the standoff if interests of all parties, including Russia’s security concerns, are taken into account.

He deplored the Western refusal to consider the Kremlin’s demands for guarantees that NATO won’t expand to Ukraine, won’t deploy weapons near the Russian border and will roll back its forces from Eastern Europe.

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The demands, rejected by NATO and the U.S. as nonstarters, come amid fears that Russia might invade Ukraine, fueled by the buildup of an estimated 100,000 Russian troops near Ukraine’s borders. Talks between Russia and the West have so far failed to yield any progress.

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The Russian leader charged that the Western allies’ refusal to heed the Russian demands violates their obligations on integrity of security for all nations and insisted that a solution could be found through more talks.

He warned that Ukraine’s accession to NATO could lead to a situation where Ukrainian authorities launch a military action to reclaim control over Crimea or areas controlled by Russia-backed separatists in the country’s east.

“Imagine that Ukraine becomes a NATO member and launches those military operations,” Putin said. “Should we fight NATO then? Has anyone thought about it?”

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Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014 following the ouster of the country’s Moscow-friendly president and later threw its weight behind rebels in Ukraine’s eastern industrial heartland, triggering a conflict that has killed over 14,000.

Speaking after talks with Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban in the Kremlin, Putin emphasized that it’s still possible to find a settlement that would take every party’s concerns into account.

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He said that French President Emmanuel Macron may soon visit Moscow as part of renewed diplomatic efforts following their call on Monday.

Orban, who has forged close ties with Putin, putting NATO member Hungary in a unique position, stressed that no European leader wants a war in the region and voiced hope for a settlement. The Hungarian leader has avoided taking a definitive stance on the buildup of Russian troops along Ukraine’s borders and some of his opponents at home criticized his trip to Moscow as a betrayal of Hungary’s interests and Western alliances.

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In a bid to exert pressure on the West, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has sent letters to the U.S. and other Western counterparts to seek their explanations about past obligations signed by all members of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, a top trans-Atlantic security grouping.

Russia has argued that NATO’s expansion eastward has hurt Russia’s security, violating the principle of “indivisibility of security” endorsed by the OSCE in 1999 and 2010.

Lavrov charged Tuesday that the U.S. and its allies have ignored the principle that the security of one nation should not be strengthened at the expense of others, while insisting on every nation’s right to choose alliances, noting that he again raised the issue in a phone call Tuesday with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

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“We will insist on a frank conversation about why the West doesn’t want to fulfill its obligations,” Lavrov said in televised remarks. “We will not allow to hush it up.”

Blinken, meanwhile, emphasized “the U.S. willingness, bilaterally and together with Allies and partners, to continue a substantive exchange with Russia on mutual security concerns.”

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State Department spokesman Ned Price noted that Blinken also “further reiterated the U.S. commitment to Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, as well as the right of all countries to determine their own foreign policy and alliances.”

Blinken also “urged immediate Russian de-escalation and the withdrawal of troops and equipment from Ukraine’s borders,” Price said. He reaffirmed that “further invasion of Ukraine would be met with swift and severe consequences and urged Russia to pursue a diplomatic path.”

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Senior State Department officials described the call as professional and “fairly candid,” noting that Lavrov restated Russia’ insistence that it has no plans to invade Ukraine and Blinken replied that if Putin didn’t really intend to invade Ukraine, Russia should withdraw its troops.

The top diplomats agreed that the next step would be for Russia to submit its response to the US and to speak again. Lavrov said Russia’s foreign and defense ministries are still working on its response, which will be sent to Putin for review before it is transmitted to Washington.

Shortly after speaking to Lavrov, Blinken convened a conference call with the secretary general of NATO, the EU foreign policy chief and the chairman-in-office of the OSCE as part of efforts to ensure that the allies are engaged in any further contacts with Russia.

High-level diplomacy continued Tuesday, with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson arriving in Kyiv for scheduled talks with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki visited Kyiv in a show of support, promising to deliver more weapons to Ukraine including portable air defense systems, drones, mortars and ammunition.

He noted that Russia’s neighbors feel like they are living “next to a volcano.”

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Morawiecki criticized Germany for considering the certification of the newly-built Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline that would carry Russian natural gas to German consumers bypassing transit countries Ukraine and Poland.

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“You can’t express solidarity with Ukraine while also working to certify the Nord Stream 2,” the Polish prime minister said. “By allowing the pipeline’s launch, Berlin would hand Putin a gun he could then use to blackmail the entire of Europe.”

Zelenskyy said Ukraine would forge a new trilateral political alliance with Britain and Poland, hailing it as a reflection of strong international support for Ukraine.

The Ukrainian president signed a decree on Tuesday expanding the country’s army by 100,000 troops, bringing the total number to 350,000 in the next three years, and raising army wages.

Zelenskyy, who in recent days sought to calm the nation in the wake of fears of an imminent invasion, said Tuesday that he signed “this decree not because of a war.”

“This decree is so that there is peace soon and further down the line,” the president said.

The decree ended conscription starting from Jan. 1, 2024, and outlined plans to hire 100,000 troops over the next three years.

Lee reported from Washington. Associated Press writers Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations, Aamer Madhani in Washington, Yuras Karmanau in Kyiv, Ukraine and Dasha Litvinova in Moscow contributed to this report.

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