Russian President Vladimir Putin wants a deal to block the expansion of NATO, a demand brought forth amid widespread suspicions that Moscow is preparing a military offensive against Ukraine.

“The only way to resolve the situation is to jointly develop long-term agreements that would prevent NATO’s further expansion to the east and the deployment of weapons systems that threaten us in the immediate vicinity of Russia’s borders,” Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said Friday, per state media.

Zakharova aired that demand ahead of an expected phone call between Putin and President Joe Biden, a conversation that has acquired urgency by virtue of Russian military movements that have stoked Ukrainian fear of an impending assault. From the perspective of Biden’s team, no government leader has done more to motivate European countries to join NATO than Putin.

“NATO is a defensive alliance. ... It is not an alliance that is going to commit acts of aggression against Russia,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Friday during the Reuters NEXT global conference. “The only threat of aggression that currently exists is renewed Russian aggression against Ukraine. That’s what we very much want to make sure doesn’t happen.”


Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who met with Blinken this week on the sidelines of an Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe summit in Sweden, implied that Russia has a right to take military action if Ukraine moves too close to the United States and other Western powers.

“We ... do not want any conflicts, but if our NATO partners have stated that no one has a right to dictate to a country that would like to join NATO whether it can do or not, we can say that every country is able to define its own interests to guarantee their security,” Lavrov told reporters in Stockholm. "And we can refer to the principle of indivisible security envisaged in the EU and NATO documents, which is that no one can guarantee its own security at the expense of the security of others. And NATO’s extension ... will infringe upon our security, obviously.”

Ukraine is not a member of NATO, but Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky aspires to join the security bloc — although Kyiv’s path to the alliance has been impeded by the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the subsequent destabilization of eastern Ukraine. Russia portrays that conflict as a civil war within Ukraine, but U.S. and Ukrainian officials regard the violence as an extension of Russia’s seizure of Crimea. Ukrainian defense officials accused Russia in November of "increasing the combat readiness of the Russian occupation forces in the temporarily occupied territory in Donetsk and Luhansk regions.”

Germany and France have attempted to oversee a diplomatic resolution to the crisis through the so-called Normandy Format, which includes Russia and Ukraine. Putin has participated in that process but portrays Russia as an external observer of the conflict. Zelensky has responded to the latest round of saber-rattling by calling for “direct talks” with Putin while emphasizing that the Ukrainian military won’t present an easy challenge for the Russians.

“We need to tell the truth that we won’t be able to stop the war without holding direct talks with Russia,” he said last week. “We need to speak [with Russia] knowing that we have strong and powerful armed forces.”

A Ukrainian Defense Ministry recruitment video from 2015 recirculated on Twitter this week, hinting at the anxiety and determination prompted by the specter of a wider conflict.

“None of us was born for war,” the video voice-over states over images of Ukrainian forces. “But we are all here to protect our freedom.”


Blinken spoke this week as if the U.S. anticipates that Russia will test that resolve.

“We have deep concerns about Russia’s plans for renewed aggression against Ukraine,” he said alongside Lavrov. “If Russia decides to pursue confrontation, there will be serious consequences.”