MOSCOW – President Vladimir Putin sharply escalated his anti-Western rhetoric on Monday, accusing Ukraine’s military of being “NATO’s foreign legion” whose main purpose was to contain Russia.
Shortly after his spokesman warned the West against ‘blackmailing’ Moscow with the threat of new sanctions over an upsurge in violence in Ukraine, Putin accused Kiev of not wanting to seek a settlement peace in a war that has claimed more than 5,000 lives.
“Who is really fighting there? Putin said in a televised address during a visit to St. Petersburg.
“These are partly official units of the armed forces, but to a greater extent they are so-called ‘volunteer nationalist battalions,'” he said.
“Essentially, it’s not an army, it’s a foreign legion – in this particular case, the NATO foreign legion, which of course does not pursue the goal of serving Ukraine’s national interests. There are completely different goals there,” he said, saying they were aimed at achieving “the containment of Russia.”
“Unfortunately, the official authorities in Kyiv refuse to embark on the path of a peaceful settlement,” he added.
The Kremlin strongman also said that “many” Ukrainian men of conscription age did not want to take up arms and were instead looking to leave for Russia.
“They are looking to move here, wait a bit,” Putin said. “And they’re doing the right thing because they’re just being used there as cannon fodder.”
US President Barack Obama over the weekend threatened to step up pressure on Russia over renewed fighting in Ukraine, saying Putin seemed “determined to engage in military conflict”.
Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov, speaking to reporters earlier on Monday, warned the West against what he called “economic blackmail”.
“This is an absolutely destructive, unwarranted and ultimately short-sighted policy.”
Washington and Brussels have already imposed several rounds of sanctions against Russia in an effort to force Moscow to drop its support for separatists in eastern Ukraine.
Kiev and the West have accused Moscow of sending regular troops to Ukraine to support the insurgency. Russia has denied the allegation despite evidence to the contrary.