Putin boast adds to tensions in Ukraine

  • Article by: ANDREW ROTH , New York Times
  • Updated: September 2, 2014 - 6:06 PM

War of words precedes this week’s NATO summit.


Residents rode a motorcycle past a destroyed tank in Ilovaysk, Ukraine, on Tuesday. President Obama will visit neighboring Estonia on Wednesday to reassure allies concerned about Russia.

Photo: Mauricio Lima • New York Times,

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– President Vladimir Putin of Russia reportedly told a European official that he could “take Kiev in two weeks” if he wanted to, adding a new dimension to the tensions building in Ukraine as Russian forces become more involved in the fighting there.

As NATO leaders gather in Wales for a summit meeting, Putin’s remarks and the increasing presence of Russian military units in Ukraine have posed a stark new challenge to the alliance about how to respond to Moscow’s willingness to exert military force to achieve its policy goals.

The Kremlin did not deny the remark, which was published in the Italian newspaper La Repubblica on Monday, but on Tuesday it denounced the European official, José Manuel Barroso, for leaking details of what Putin understood to be a private telephone call.

“Whether these words were said or not, in my viewpoint, the quote given is taken out of context, and it had an absolutely different meaning,” said Yuri Ushakov, a Kremlin aide.

It was the first Kremlin response to the article, in which Barroso, the European commissioner, relayed Putin’s response to his question of whether Russian troops had crossed into eastern Ukraine.

“That is not the question,” Barroso said Putin told him. “But if I wanted to, I could take Kiev in two weeks.”

Putin is known for littering his public statements with twists of braggadocio, immortalized in a vow he made as prime minister in 1999 to root out terrorism in Russia.

“If we catch them in the toilet, we’ll whack them in the outhouse,” he said of the terrorists then.

On Tuesday, however, Ushakov said that it was Barroso who was out of line if he had relayed a diplomatic conversation to the newspaper.

“It appears to me to be simply unworthy of a serious political figure,” he said.

The war of words has expanded across Europe before the NATO summit meeting Thursday and Friday, when the alliance’s leaders are expected to endorse a rapid-reaction force of 4,000 troops for Eastern Europe.

That prompted a senior Russian military official to announce that the country would revise its military doctrine to account for “changing military dangers and military threats,” including, he said, NATO expansion.

In an interview with the state news agency RIA Novosti, the official, Mikhail Popov, the deputy secretary for Russia’s Security Council, called NATO expansion “one of the leading military dangers for the Russian Federation.”

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, speaking at a news conference, said that a recent initiative by the Ukrainian government to shed the country’s nonaligned status and join the military alliance could scuttle efforts to negotiate a peace settlement between Kiev and separatists in the country.

He added that hawkish rhetoric in the Ukrainian government, including talk Tuesday of a “Great Patriotic War” along the lines of World War II, was being “incited from Washington, some European capitals, and more and more often from Brussels and from NATO headquarters, where the North Atlantic alliance secretary-general gives statements with and without cause.”

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