Russian President Vladimir Putin warned Western powers on Thursday against deepening military alliances with Georgia and Ukraine, asserting that Russia would “respond proportionately” to “aggressive moves” against it.
Putin complained in particular of the potential that NATO would begin establishing closer ties to countries that border or have active military disputes with Russia, such as Georgia and Ukraine.
“We will respond proportionally to aggressive moves that pose a direct threat to Russia,” Putin said at a meeting of Russian diplomats, according to the Russian news agency TASS. “Our counterparts who bet on rising tensions, are trying to bring, say, Ukraine and Georgia into the alliance’s military orbit but they should think about the possible consequences of such an irresponsible policy.”
Putin suggested “serious risks of escalation persist in southeastern Ukraine,” home to the Donbas region, where occupied Ukrainian territories Luhansk and Donetsk are located. Russia troops and “volunteers” remain in the area and are believed to have been responsible for the 2014 downing of Malaysia Airlines flight 17, a commercial airliner. Putin blamed the tensions on “outright disregard for agreements and reluctance to maintain dialogue” on the part of the Ukrainian government.
Putin also urged Western powers to avoid “establishing new military bases and NATO military infrastructure near Russia’s borders, which is what is happening now.”
“There is a need for a different – more positive – agenda, aimed at boosting cooperation and the search for common ground,” he concluded, noting that he had made these points to U.S. President Donald Trump during their summit on Monday.
The Kremlin further expressed concerns surrounding Georgia on Thursday, suggesting that tensions involving its breakaway regions could hurt international diplomacy.
“There are powerful political forces in the West seeking that anti-Russian sanctions stay in place and be tightened,”Russian Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Maria Zakharova told reporters. “However, their motives have nothing to do with care for Georgia. Only naive people can think otherwise,” she said.
“If Georgia starts being mentioned as a motive for sanctions, it will be a good reason for the Georgian people to think – can it be so that their country is used in somebody else’s geopolitical game? Actually, it is hard to escape this conclusion,” she concluded.
According to Russian Ambassador to the United States Anatoly Antonov, Putin suggested to Trump during their private meeting that eastern Ukraine should hold a referendum on whether the residents there want to be part of Ukraine or Russia. Antonov has repeatedly alleged that “concrete proposals” and “oral agreements” came out of the meeting, allegations the State Department and the White House have denied.
Fighting between pro-Russian militias, many believed to have ties to the Russian government, began in 2014 following the removal of pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych and climaxed with the Russian annexation of Crimea that year. The Russian government staged a referendum in Crimea believed to be similar to the proposal Antonov discussed, widely decried by the free world as an illegitimate vote. But military and paramilitary conflict has yet to cease in eastern Ukraine, closer to Russia, where many fighting there demand Russian control of the territory.
In Georgia, Russia has long agitated for the secession of the nation’s two breakaway regions, South Ossetia and Abkhazia. In 2008, Russian troops invaded Georgia in 2008 after being accused, and later proven guilty, of shooting down a Georgian drone in Abkhazia. Russia sent troops into Abkhazia before conducting airstrikes over South Ossetia, prompting then-President Mikheil Saakashvili to launch an international media campaign demanding the West intervene to save Georgia’s sovereignty. Russia continues to have a presence in the breakaway regions to this day despite a ceasefire agreement, maintaining the threat of reigniting the dispute.