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The U.S. and Russia are still far apart on Ukraine, Putin says

Russian President Vladimir Putin talks during a press conference with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban after their meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow on Tuesday.
Yuri Kochetkov
POOL/AFP via Getty Images
Russian President Vladimir Putin talks during a press conference with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban after their meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow on Tuesday.

In his first public remarks on the Ukraine crisis since last year, Russian President Vladimir Putin expressed support for continued diplomacy, but said the West had thus far ignored key Russian security demands regarding NATO's expansion eastward into regions once dominated by the Soviet Union.

At a news conference in Moscow with Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban, Putin said, "In creating a threat for Russia, Ukraine creates a threat for itself." He argued that as a future NATO member, Ukraine could attempt to forcibly retake Crimea — the peninsula Russia illegally annexed from Ukraine in 2014.

"Are we supposed to go to war with the NATO bloc?" asked Putin. "Has anyone given that any thought? Apparently not."

Putin's remarks came after a phone call between U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and his Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, in which the two spoke for 30 minutes but little progress was made. It was the first official dialogue between the two countries since the U.S. presented its written response to Russia's security demands last week.

Tuesday also saw a visit to Kyiv by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in Kyiv on Tuesday.
Peter Nicholls / Pool/AFP via Getty Images
Pool/AFP via Getty Images
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in Kyiv on Tuesday.

The efforts to find a diplomatic solution for the Ukraine crisis follow a heated exchange Monday between the U.S. and Russia at a U.N. Security Council meeting, in which Russia's U.N. ambassador denied that Russia was preparing to invade, instead accusing the U.S. of "provoking escalation."

Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, told NPR: "Our hope is that this will work and that Putin will understand that war and confrontation is not the path that he wants to follow, but he wants to take a path at diplomacy."

Blinken reiterated U.S. concerns in his call with Lavrov

In December, Russia released a set of far-reaching security demands, most of which are objectionable to the U.S. and its allies — perhaps none more so than a ban on Ukraine from ever joining NATO.

The U.S. sent its formal response — a set of its own proposals — to Russia last week. Although the letter has not been released publicly, Blinken said that the U.S. had rejected the Ukraine-NATO demand.

Blinken repeated the concerns in Tuesday's call with Lavrov, according to the brief readout from the State Department: "He 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," it said.

Officials from both countries have indicated there could be room to negotiate on certain other issues, like arms control.

An earlier letter sent to the U.S. by Russia was not the country's formal response, according to senior State Department officials who spoke on condition of anonymity. That is still being developed by Russia's Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Defense, and will have to be reviewed by Putin before it comes to the U.S., the officials said. It is not clear when that might happen.

Russia has resisted calls for deescalation, saying that the presence of its troops on Ukraine's border is nothing more than normal military exercises. Russian officials say it is the U.S. that is escalating tensions by suggesting that Russia is preparing for an invasion.

The U.S. says it is pursuing two paths simultaneously: a diplomatic path, and one of more serious response measures if Russia takes military action against Ukraine, including a package of financial sanctions and export controls.

"We don't know that Putin has made a decision about what he's going to do. So until President Putin makes that decision, we need to continue to prepare for these different outcomes," the State Department official said.

Boris Johnson visits Ukraine and vows support

Tuesday's visit to Kyiv by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is a high-profile show of support for Ukraine from a key NATO member. On Monday, Johnson vowed that the U.K. would continue to uphold Ukraine's sovereignty and has urged Russia to step back from mass troop deployments on its border.

The U.K. has trained tens of thousands of Ukrainian soldiers since 2015 and says it will spend millions to fight corruption and strengthen the rule of law there.

Meanwhile, the British government is also targeting Russian oligarchs and wealth within its own borders to put pressure on those who may be close to Russian President Putin.

Many Russian oligarchs and other wealthy individuals stash their money in expensive residences in London, giving rise to the "Londongrad" nickname. The "gray money" helps drive the luxury real estate market and fund soccer clubs, among other things. Laws intended to block these types of financial maneuvers are difficult to enforce.

Johnson is facing his own crisis at home, surviving another round of calls to resign Monday after the release of a government investigator's report on parties his government threw when such events were banned because of the pandemic.

Poland offers munitions support to Ukraine, and Hungary's Orban calls on Putin

Johnson wasn't the only leader to visit Ukraine on Tuesday. Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki also was there. Poland offered Ukraine, its neighbor to the east, munitions support on Monday.

Deputy Interior Minister Maciej Wasik told Polish news outlet TV Republika last week that Warsaw had been taking steps to prepare for "the most drastic" scenario — the arrival of as many as a million refugees from Ukraine.

Meanwhile, Orban is in Moscow, in the first visit by any European leader since Russia began sending troops to Ukraine's border. During his visit, he'll negotiate over Russian gas supplies and a Russian-funded nuclear power project in central Hungary.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Becky Sullivan has reported and produced for NPR since 2011 with a focus on hard news and breaking stories. She has been on the ground to cover natural disasters, disease outbreaks, elections and protests, delivering stories to both broadcast and digital platforms.