“When the infrastructure of a military bloc is moving towards our borders it makes us also take steps in the opposite direction, and this is our right as well,” Putin said during his annual televised question-and-answer session, responding to a question about NATO’s post-Cold War expansion towards Russia’s borders. “We are forced to take some measures in response.”
“Our decision on Crimea was partially connected to that,” Putin said.
Although the main driver behind the annexation was the need to protect the residents of Crimea, “we had other considerations as well: If we don’t do anything, after a while they will use the same principles and drag Ukraine into NATO. And they will say, ‘It’s none of your business.’
“And then the NATO ships will be in the city of Russian military glory, the town of Sevastopol,” he continued.
Putin said the notion of NATO vessels in Sevastopol was more than merely an emotional issue for Russia.
While modern weaponry made Crimea’s location in the Black Sea less important today than it was in the 18th or the 19th century, he said, “if NATO troops go there they will deploy offensive weapons there and that is of geopolitical importance for us.”
“Russia will be pushed out from the area around the Black Sea – that will leave us with only a small part of the shore, 600 kilometers or so. So this is pushing out of Russia from this very important region of the world.”
Before Crimea’s annexation, Russia’s Black Sea coastline ran from the border of Georgia in the south, near Sochi, to Rostov-on-Don, a little under 400 miles. Adding Crimea almost doubles the Russian coastline, and crucially adds the port of Sevastopol, home base of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. (Almost four years before the recent upheaval Moscow and Kiev negotiated an extension of the fleet’s lease, which had been due to expire in 2017, for a further 25 years. Since the area is now under Russian control, Putin has canceled the lease.)
During his four-hour televised phone-in show, Putin said that after the fall of the Soviet Union and Germany’s reunification in 1990, “the then secretary-general of NATO promised us that the alliance would not go any further to the east. And then it started to expand, by adding former Warsaw Pact countries and then the Baltic states, former USSR republics.”
He also complained about NATO’s missile defense system, being established in Europe in phases. The alliance says it is designed to protect allies from a ballistic missile attack from rogue states, primarily Iran.
“This is not a defensive system, but part of the offensive potential deployed far away from home,” Putin said. “Again we’re being told: ‘This is not against you.’ However, at the expert level, everyone understands very well that if these systems are deployed closer to our borders, our ground-based strategic missiles will be within their striking range.”
“Everyone is well aware of this, but we’re being told: ‘Please believe us, this is not against you.’
If that were true, Putin said, the U.S. would be willing to sign a “trifling” document giving such assurances.
“Naturally, we are bound to ask: ‘And why do you refuse to sign anything if you believe this is not directed against us?’ It would seem a trifle – a piece of paper that could be signed today and thrown away tomorrow – but they are reluctant to do even that.”
The U.S. has said it cannot provide Moscow with written guarantees that the shield will never be used to neutralize its defenses.
Explaining why, U.S. arms control official Rose Gottemoeller told a conference in Poland late last year that it was because of Article Five of the North Atlantic Treaty, which states that that an attack on any NATO member is considered an attack on all.
“In keeping with its collective security obligations, NATO alone bears responsibility for defending the alliance from ballistic missile threats. Just as Russia must ensure the defense of Russian territory, NATO must ensure the defense of NATO territory,” she said.
“NATO cannot and will not outsource its Article Five commitments. Russia continues to request legal guarantees that could create limitations on our ability to develop and deploy future missile defense systems against regional ballistic missile threats such as those presented by Iran and North Korea,” Gottemoeller said. “We have made clear that we cannot and will not accept limitations on our ability to defend ourselves, our allies, and our partners.”