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Putin says Russia doesn't want war with Ukraine but urges West to meet his demands quickly

The Russian leader held his annual news conference as tensions with the U.S. soar over growing concerns about Moscow's troop buildup on its border with Ukraine.

Russian President Vladimir Putin sought to turn the tables on the West at his annual end-of-the-year news conference Thursday, blaming the U.S. and its allies for soaring tensions over Ukraine and suggesting that “the ball is in their court” to respond to Moscow’s demands.

Putin said it was up to the U.S. and NATO to swiftly provide the security guarantees Moscow demanded last week, although he insisted he doesn't want an armed conflict.

“The ball is in their court,” Putin told more than 500 Russian and foreign reporters at the marathon event. “They need to respond to us with something.”

Russia has massed 100,000 troops along the Ukrainian border, prompting fears of an invasion as early as next month, but it has repeatedly denied that it has any plans to attack its neighbor.

Putin sounded optimistic about the response to the security demands the Kremlin issued last week, which called for NATO to halt its eastward expansion, as well as for legally binding security guarantees that certain offensive weapons won’t be deployed to Russia's neighboring countries.

He said Washington appeared ready to begin negotiations over its proposals early next year in Geneva, although it is unlikely that the U.S. and its allies will give the guarantees he wants.

Moscow wants unconditional guarantees of its security now and in the future, and it won’t accept the expansion of NATO eastward to include Ukraine, he said. 

Offering an aggressively Russian view of history to back up his security concerns, Putin said Ukraine was “created” by Vladimir Lenin, the founder of the Soviet Union. He also accused NATO of having “fooled” Russia with five waves of expansion since the Cold War and scorned the U.S. for inching closer to Russia's “doorstep,” adding that it sometimes seems Moscow and the West live in “different worlds.” 

“You are demanding guarantees from me,” Putin said. “You should be giving guarantees. And immediately, now. ”

Biden administration officials are prepared to begin talks with Russia next month, although a date and a location haven’t been agreed on, a senior administration official said Wednesday.

The official said that Putin has raised areas of concern that the U.S. is willing to discuss but that other demands remain off the table, including any talk of borders’ being changed or moves that would infringe on the sovereignty of other countries. 

“What we’ve said is that there are some issues that Russia has raised that we believe we can discuss and others that they know very well we will never agree to, as well as that we have our own concerns to raise,” the official said. “That is what diplomacy is, that’s what a negotiation is, and that’s what we plan to undertake.”

Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who said this week that Washington was working with its European allies to address what he called “Russian aggression” through diplomacy, said President Joe Biden opposes the kind of guarantees sought by Putin.

Biden warned Putin in a virtual call this month that Russia would face “severe consequences” if it attacked Ukraine.

Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014, drawing condemnation and sanctions from the West. Shortly afterward, Moscow backed a separatist rebellion in the country’s east, where fighting has killed over 14,000 people and devastated Ukraine’s industrial heartland.

A Ukrainian soldier on the front line in the country's east, where Russia has backed a separatist rebellion through seven years of fighting.Andriy Dubchak / AP

Putin has held the marathon event, at which he answers questions on a variety of subjects, every year since he became president in 2001. Since 2004, each news conference has been at least three hours long, with the longest coming in last year at 4½ hours.

This year’s event comes amid growing concerns about the military buildup but also as the Kremlin faces internal challenges from surging Covid-19 numbers, economic recovery and a crackdown on dissent that has drawn international criticism.

The annual news conference is a pillar of Putin’s domestic image building and something of a fixture in the holiday season in Russia, designed to portray him as a transparent and caring leader.

Before Putin addressed the media Thursday, Russia's Covid death toll passed 600,000, according to a Reuters tally. The country has struggled to contain cases, and it has the third-highest death toll in the world, with low vaccination take-up harming its ability to emerge from the pandemic.

In the last year, the country has also faced the largest crackdown on the free press and political dissent since the Soviet era. A growing number of opposition political figures and media outlets face "foreign agent" designations, and opposition leader Alexei Navalny has been imprisoned on what his supporters say are trumped-up charges after he was poisoned with a nerve agent.