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Russia wants to avoid conflict with Ukraine and the West, President Vladimir Putin said on Thursday, but needs an “immediate” response from the US and its allies to its demands for security guarantees.

Ukraine is at the centre of East-West tensions after the US and Kiev accused Russia of weighing a new attack on its southern neighbour, an allegation Moscow denies.

“This is not our (preferred) choice, we do not want this,” Putin said at his annual news conference when asked about the possibility of conflict with Ukraine.

He said Russia had received a generally positive initial response to security proposals it handed to the US in December designed to defuse the current crisis and that he was hopeful about the prospect for negotiations, which he said would start early next year in Geneva.

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks about Nato and US missile deployments during his annual news conference in Moscow.

But in a separate reply, Putin grew more heated when recalling how Nato had “brazenly tricked” Russia with successive waves of expansion since the Cold War, and said Moscow needed an answer urgently.

“You must give us guarantees, and immediately — now,” he said.

Russia rejects Ukrainian and US accusations that it may be preparing an invasion of Ukraine as early as next month by tens of thousands of Russian troops deployed within reach of the border of the fellow former Soviet republic.

It says it needs pledges from the West — including a promise not to conduct Nato military activity in Eastern Europe — because its security is threatened by Ukraine's growing ties with the Western alliance as well as the possibility of Nato missiles being deployed against it on Ukrainian territory.

“We just directly posed the question that there should be no further Nato movement to the east. The ball is in their court, they should answer us with something,” Putin said.

Low point

Tensions over Ukraine have pushed East-West relations to their lowest point in the three decades since the collapse of the Soviet Union. The US, EU  and G7 have all warned Putin he will face “massive consequences” including tough economic sanctions in the event of any new Russian aggression.

The topic surfaced repeatedly at Putin’s marathon question-and-answer session, with the Russian leader seated alone in front of an audience of masked reporters on a giant stage at the cavernous Manezh Exhibition Centre near the Kremlin.

While looking forward to the upcoming talks with Washington, Putin was damning in his criticism of Ukraine.

He accused it of breaking its commitments under a 2015 deal meant to halt fighting in Ukraine’s eastern Donbass area between Ukrainian and pro-Russian forces, and refusing to talk to representatives of two breakaway regions there.

Ukraine rejects Putin’s stance that Moscow is just a mediator in the conflict, accusing it of providing direct backing to the separatist side. It has repeatedly offered direct talks with Russia, which Moscow has so far rejected.

Putin made clear he did not see President Volodymr Zelenskiy as a negotiating partner, accusing him of falling under the influence of “radical nationalist forces”.

“How can I build a relationship with the current leadership, given what they are doing? It’s practically impossible,” he said. 

On rising gas prices, Putin  said  Germany was reselling Russian gas to Poland and Ukraine rather than relieving an overheated market, adding Moscow was not to blame for Europe's gas price crisis.

European spot gas prices hit another all-time high this week after the Yamal pipeline that normally brings Russian gas to heat homes and power electricity generation in Germany reversed direction and started to flow into Poland.

Germany receives Russian gas through several routes, including Yamal and the undersea Nord Stream 1 pipeline, and two major German customers said this week that Russian supplier Gazprom was meeting its contractual obligations.

“Gazprom is supplying all volumes requested under existing contracts,” Putin said during his annual news conference.

Russia has consistently defended its long-term contracts, saying they guarantee stable volumes and prices. When it sees requests, Gazprom buys extra export capacity, which is in addition to long-term deals, at auctions which is for delivery through the Yamal pipeline and Ukraine.

But Gazprom has not booked additional capacity for Yamal shipments for December or at daily auctions so far this week, and Yamal flows continued in reverse for a third day on Thursday, while shipments through Ukraine were also down.

“Gazprom did not book this traffic as its customers, above all German and French companies, who buy gas via this (Yamal) route, did not put purchase requests forward,” Putin said on Thursday. “They turned this (Yamal) route into reverse from Germany to Poland... Why? Because we supply gas to Germany under long-term contracts and the price is three to four, (even) six to seven times cheaper than on spot. Just reselling 1-billion cubic metres (bcm) one can earn $1bn.”

Germany’s economy ministry declined to comment.

Gazprom increased exports to Europe by 7% in the January-November period, with Germany buying 5.6 bcm more than a year ago, he said. 



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