Putin breaks his silence but keeps West guessing

The Russian leader took on a defiant tone Tuesday, accusing the United States and NATO of not just ignoring Moscow’s key demands but using Ukraine as “a tool” in its efforts to contain Russia and lure it into war.

He also warned of a future scenario in which Ukraine was admitted to NATO and then attempted to recapture the Crimean peninsula, which Russia annexed in 2014, leading to the potential for a military clash with the trans-Atlantic alliance.

Washington rejected the criticism.

“When the fox is screaming from the top of the henhouse that he’s scared of the chickens, which is essentially what they’re doing, that fear isn’t reported as a statement of fact,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters later Tuesday.

“We know who the fox is in this case. We have seen the buildup of troops at the border,” she added.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov jokingly dismissed Psaki’s comments on Wednesday, saying: “Traditionally Russia has always been compared to a bear — and a bear can’t climb on the roof of a chicken coop, it’s too heavy.”

But for some in Ukraine, Putin’s rhetoric belittling the country was nothing new. 

“This shows once again that Russia has always perceived Ukraine only as an ‘instrument’ that anyone can use, and not as an independent state and partner,” said Sofiia Pylypenko, a student from the city of Kostantynivka in the Donetsk region, where a deadly conflict between Russia-backed separatists and the Ukrainian government has been simmering for eight years. 

“This position completely excludes respect for Ukraine’s sovereignty and for Ukraine’s ability to choose its own economic and political path,” Pylypenko, 20, told NBC News via Facebook Messenger.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy also said that it was difficult to predict Russia’s actions, so both the international community and his country must prepare for any developments.

Zelenskyy has previously sought to play down fears of a Russian invasion even as Kyiv’s allies have sounded the alarm, but on Tuesday sounded more firm in his assessment of the situation.

“This will not be a war between Ukraine and Russia — this will be a war in Europe,” he warned of a potential fresh invasion.

New satellite imagery released Wednesday by U.S.-based Maxar Technologies, a space technology company, appeared to show increased Russian military deployments in Crimea as well as in western Russia and Belarus, a close Kremlin ally that borders Ukraine and Poland.

“During the past couple of weeks, several new significant military deployments have been observed in Belarus,” Maxar said in a release accompanying the satellite photos. Russia says it’s been moving troops there for joint military drills later this month. 

“Also, troop tents/shelters for personnel have been seen at virtually every deployment location in Belarus, Crimea and western Russia which suggests that the units are now accompanied with troops and have increased their overall readiness level,” the company added.

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