Vladimir Putin warns of “military measures” in major escalation of Ukraine crisis

Vladimir Putin has warned that Russia is ready to take “military measures” in response to “aggressive” Western actions in Ukraine, hinting at a potential conflict.

Speaking at a meeting of the Defense Ministry, the Russian president promised to “react firmly to hostile measures”, accusing the United States and NATO of stoking tensions near the borders of Moscow.

For weeks the Kremlin has warned of potential action against Western encroachment on its borders, but this was the first time Mr Putin has intervened publicly.

“We are concerned about the strengthening of US military and NATO forces directly near Russian borders, as well as the conduct of large-scale exercises, including unplanned ones,” Putin said.

He told Russian Defense Ministry officials on Tuesday that if the West continued its “blatantly aggressive stance” Moscow would have no choice but to retaliate with “appropriate military-technical retaliatory measures.”

His intervention comes as panic grows that Russia is ready to launch a full-scale attack on its former Soviet neighbor, Ukraine.

The United States and NATO allies have accused Moscow of amassing more than 100,000 troops near its border with eastern Ukraine, where Kiev has been fighting Russian separatists since 2014.

Russia denies plotting an invasion and demanded that the transatlantic military alliance end membership talks with Ukraine and that its forces be withdrawn from ex-Soviet states.

Mr Putin said he was “extremely concerned” about what he described as US cruise missile deployments in Poland and Romania.

“If this infrastructure moves further – if US and NATO missile systems appear in Ukraine – then their approach time to Moscow will be reduced to seven or ten minutes,” he said.

Despite the threat of conflict, the Russian president said Moscow’s demands were not an “ultimatum”.

“Russia is against the bloodshed, it wants to solve the problems by political and diplomatic means, but with security guarantees,” he said.

Speaking at the same meeting, Sergey Shoygu, Russian Minister of Defense, accused American private companies of “preparing a provocation with chemical components in eastern Ukraine”.

He also said the United States has deployed around 8,000 troops to Eastern Europe.

The United States is expected to begin talks with Russia next year on its security requirements with the aim of finding a diplomatic solution to ease tensions.

Karen Donfried, US Assistant Secretary of State, said: “We are ready to discuss the proposals that Russia has put on the table. There are some things that we are ready to work on, and we think it is useful to have a discussion. “

NATO has indicated that it is also ready to start talks. The North Atlantic Council, the alliance’s decision-making body, said last week that it was “ready for a constructive dialogue with Russia (…) on the basis of reciprocity”.

Western diplomats have warned against allowing Russia to set the rules of engagement in all talks.

Andrea Sasse, spokesperson for the German Foreign Ministry, said: “We will discuss these proposals which are currently on the table. . . with all our partners in the EU and NATO.

“It is important that in our dialogue we have [with Russia] for now, we are sticking to our own principles. And one of them is the indivisibility of the security of all NATO member states. And that has consequences for what we can and cannot accept.

But instead of pulling out of Russia’s borders, the UK and US have sent cybersecurity experts to Ukraine over fears of a Kremlin-led cyberattack on the country’s power grid.

Russian hackers would have easy access to the network as it was built when Ukraine was still a member of the Soviet Union and connected to Moscow.

“There is too much to fix,” a US official told The New York Times, suggesting there is no quick fix for the system.

Sources told the publication they were on high alert for a repeat of the December 2015 hack on Ukraine’s electricity grid, which resulted in power outages for 230,000 consumers.

Christi C. Elwood