Putin discusses Ukraine tensions with Macron, Niinistö

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a cabinet meeting at the Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow, Russia, Tuesday, Dec. 14, 2021. (Mikhail Metzel, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

MOSCOW (AP) — Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday spoke on the phone with his French and Finnish counterparts and reiterated his demand for guarantees precluding NATO from expanding to Ukraine or deploying weapons there.

The Russian leader’s phone conversations with French President Emmanuel Macron and Finnish President Sauli Niinistö come amid heightened tensions over a Russian troop buildup near Ukrainian borders that stoked fears of a possible invasion, and Western diplomatic efforts to prevent it from happening.

U.S. President Joe Biden last week told Putin that Moscow would face “severe consequences” if it attacks its ex-Soviet neighbor.

Moscow has denied plans to attack Ukraine and in turn blamed Ukraine for its own military buildup in the east of the country, where Ukrainian forces have been fighting with Russia-backed separatists since 2014.

Russian officials alleged that Kyiv might try to reclaim the areas controlled by the rebels by force, and Putin has pressed the West to provide legally binding guarantees that NATO will not expand to Ukraine or deploy its forces there.

According to the Kremlin’s readout, in his call with Niinistö, Putin lamented that Kyiv is “increasingly relying on forceful methods, including the use of heavy weapons and unmanned attack vehicles” in the war-torn east of Ukraine, and “reiterated the need to immediately launch negotiations with the United States and NATO” on the security guarantees Moscow is seeking.

Niinistö, in turn, “expressed the grave concern on the tense situation and stressed the need to find a diplomatic resolution to it,” his office said.

The Russian leader repeated the call for negotiating security guarantees in a call with Macron later Tuesday, the Kremlin’s readout said. Putin accused Ukrainian authorities of “deliberately aggravating the situation on the line of contact” in the east of the country with the backing “a number of Western countries.”

In addition, “Ukraine is being pumped up with modern weapons, which poses a direct threat to Russia’s security,” Putin said.

Russia and Ukraine have been locked in a bitter tug-of-war since 2014, when Moscow annexed the Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and threw its support behind a separatist insurgency in eastern Ukraine that has left more than 14,000 people dead.

Moscow has bristled at NATO’s joint drills with Ukrainian forces and warned that the alliance’s expansion to Ukraine would represent a “red line” for Russia.

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Associated Press writer Jari Tanner in Helsinki, Finland contributed to this report.

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