Kremlin says US response to its demands does not offer ‘much cause for optimism’
By Aton Troianovski and Michael Schwirtz
The Kremlin warned Thursday that there was “not much cause for optimism” that the West would satisfy Russia’s demands in the showdown over Ukraine, but said that President Vladimir Putin would take his time to study the written responses that the United States and NATO submitted a day earlier before deciding how to proceed.
“All these papers are with the president,” Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, told reporters. “There will of course be some time needed to analyze them — we won’t rush to any conclusions.”
Peskov did not discuss the content of the responses, which the United States has requested be kept confidential. But he said that based on public remarks about them by Secretary of State Antony Blinken and NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, there was little likelihood that the West would offer concessions on Russia’s central demands.
“There is not much cause for optimism,” Peskov said, replying to a question over whether Russia would be satisfied with the Western responses. “But I would continue to refrain from making any conceptual evaluations.”
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov sounded a similarly negative note, saying in comments published on his ministry’s website that the U.S. document contained “no positive reaction” to Russia’s main demands.
The Russian officials’ comments came against the backdrop of Russia’s troop buildup near Ukraine, and hours after a shooting at a Ukrainian missile factory overnight that served as a reminder of the fragile military situation on the ground. There was no immediate evidence that the shooting was related to the building military tensions in the region.
As Western fears grew over a possible Russian attack against Ukraine, Moscow published a list of demands last month that would involve NATO withdrawing troops from Eastern Europe and pledging never to allow Ukraine to join. Russia requested a response in writing, which the United States and NATO submitted Wednesday.
Lavrov said that while the U.S. response included initiatives that could serve as “the beginning of a serious conversation,” there was no sign of progress on Russia’s priority of rolling back the NATO presence in Eastern Europe. He said that consultations among Russian government officials would be followed by a briefing to Putin, who “will decide on our next steps.”
Putin, who has been silent in public on the Ukraine crisis since December, visited a cemetery in St. Petersburg on Thursday to mark the 78th anniversary of the end of the Nazis’ siege of Leningrad, in which Putin’s brother died as a child. State television aired brief footage of Putin, in a black overcoat, placing flowers onto a wreath in the snow. Peskov said the president planned no other public events.
For now, officials on all sides say there is still a chance for diplomacy to resolve the crisis.
Senior officials from Ukraine and Russia met in person in Paris for eight hours Wednesday in a session mediated by France and Germany. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine on Thursday described the talks as a positive development, but emphasized the importance of adhering to the cease-fire in the eastern Ukraine region known as the Donbas, where violence occasionally flares in a long-simmering conflict between Ukrainian forces and Russian-backed separatists.
“For our country, the first priority at this moment is achieving a stable and unconditional quiet in the Donbas,” he said in a statement.
A Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman, Alexei Zaitsev, said another meeting scheduled to take place in Berlin in two weeks could identify “solutions to problems that have been piling up for seven years.” And he reiterated Russian officials’ insistence that their country had no plans to attack Ukraine.
“We see it as unacceptable to even think about war between our peoples,” Zaitsev said, according to the Interfax news agency.
But analysts say it is very likely Putin’s diplomats do not know what, exactly, their president is planning. The Kremlin is seeking to rewrite Europe’s post-Cold War order to give Russia a sphere of influence in Eastern Europe — something Putin says is critical to Russia’s long-term security. Putin has threatened unspecified “military-technical” measures if the West does not accede to Russia’s demands.