At Putin News Conference, a Search for Signals on Ukraine


President Vladimir V. Putin focused on domestic issues like the economy and the coronavirus on Thursday in the early minutes of his annual news conference, which was being closely watched because of rising military tensions in Eastern Europe.

As reporters held up signs asking for comment on Russia’s deployment of troops near the Ukrainian border, Mr. Putin began his appearance by asserting that Russia had handled the economic challenges of the virus better than other major economies. He acknowledged a cost in lives lost and a drop in life expectancy last year. He also noted what he said were good economic indicators, including good results in construction and a good harvest.

What distinguished Mr. Putin’s comments on Thursday was their orientation to a domestic audience in a question-and-answer format broadcast live on Russian television channels. Western nations waited to see how he would portray the standoff over Ukraine and whether his comments suggested intentions to put the country on more of a war footing.

The United States intelligence agencies have said that Russia has tens of thousands of troops near the Ukrainian border, with plans to amass an invasion force of up to 175,000 soldiers. They have said it is not yet clear whether Mr. Putin has decided to invade.

Russian diplomats detailed their demands on Eastern Europe — including a written pledge from NATO not to expand east — in two ultimatums last week directed at the United States and the alliance.

The proposals suggested establishing a Cold War-style security arrangement in Europe based on spheres of influence. While NATO rejected the demand to close its doors to new members, the Biden administration has agreed to negotiate broadly on security issues starting in January, offering a possible path to unwinding the tensions.

Analysts have also weighed the possibility that Mr. Putin is looking for concessions on a range of issues, even some not directly tied to security. These include energy and pipeline negotiations in Europe.

That means that what Russia wants, exactly, has become something of a guessing game — leaving diplomats and security analysts hanging on every word from Mr. Putin this winter.

Mr. Putin’s marathon year-end news conferences are a longtime tradition, meant to demonstrate his stamina and authority as he answers questions for hours on end. They have also been a stage for policy pronouncements.

The Russian leader in recent months has been outlining what he describes as historical grievances and betrayals by Western nations in the post-Soviet period that Moscow will no longer tolerate. Actions by NATO and the United States, he has suggested, have left Russia little choice but to threaten to use the military. Russia is obliged, he has said, to protect Russians left stranded outside the country by the breakup of the Soviet Union three decades ago.

Understand the Escalating Tensions Over Ukraine

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A brewing conflict. Antagonism between Ukraine and Russia has been simmering since 2014, when the Russian military crossed into Ukrainian territory, annexing Crimea and whipping up a rebellion in the east. A tenuous cease-fire was reached in 2015, but peace has been elusive.

A spike in hostilities. Russia has recently been building up forces near its border with Ukraine, and the Kremlin’s rhetoric toward its neighbor has hardened. Concern grew in late October, when Ukraine used an armed drone to attack a howitzer operated by Russian-backed separatists.

Ominous warnings. Russia called the strike a destabilizing act that violated the cease-fire agreement, raising fears of a new intervention in Ukraine that could draw the United States and Europe into a new phase of the conflict.

The Kremlin’s position. President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, who has increasingly portrayed NATO’s eastward expansion as an existential threat to his country, said that Moscow’s military buildup was a response to Ukraine’s deepening partnership with the alliance.

A measured approach. President Biden has said he is seeking a stable relationship with Russia. So far, his administration is focusing on maintaining a dialogue with Moscow, while seeking to develop deterrence measures in concert with European countries.

On Tuesday, in comments that appeared to suggest an imminent threat, Russia’s defense minister, Sergey K. Shoigu, said that American military contractors had appeared in eastern Ukraine, near two Russia-backed separatist regions, and that they had brought with them “an unknown chemical component.”

But possibilities for an escalation abound. Mr. Putin, speaking at the same event with Mr. Shoigu on Tuesday, ruminated on the possibility that the United States had long-term plans to deploy hypersonic missiles in Ukraine, something that the United States has never suggested it intends to do.

“What they are now doing on the territory of Ukraine, or trying to do, or planning to do, is not thousands of kilometers from our national borders,” Mr. Putin said. “It’s on the doorstep of our home. They just have to understand that we have nowhere left to retreat.”

Anton Troianovski reported from Moscow, and Andrew E. Kramer from Kyiv, Ukraine.

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