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24 August 2017
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Putin escalates Ukraine threat

Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday warned Ukraine against joining NATO and said Moscow could aim its nuclear warheads at the former Soviet republic if it ever deployed missile defense systems on its territory...

Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday warned Ukraine against joining NATO and said Moscow could aim its nuclear warheads at the former Soviet republic if it ever deployed missile defense systems on its territory.

Under President Viktor Yushchenko, Ukraine has become a staunch ally of the West and has made eventual membership in NATO a key foreign policy aim. However, so far, Washington has not suggested it could expand its proposed missile shield in Poland and the Czech Republic to include Ukraine.

While the Kremlin has always made clear its opposition to Ukraine`s plans to join NATO, Putin`s remarks signaled a sharp escalation of Moscow`s rhetoric against Yushchenko`s pro-West policies. Speaking at a news conference with Yushchenko, who was visiting the Kremlin, at his side, Putin said Russia would have to retaliate if Ukraine ever decided to deploy elements of a U.S. missile defense system.

"It`s frightening not just to talk about this, but even to think about, that in response to such a deployment, the possibility of such deployments—and one can`t theoretically exclude these deployments—that Russia will have to point its warheads at Ukrainian territory," Putin said.

Putin also warned that Ukraine`s bid to join NATO "raises the question for Russia of the need for retaliatory actions."

Putin`s harsh words overshadowed an agreement between Russia and Ukraine that settled a gas debt dispute and averted a shutdown of Russian natural gas supplies to its southern neighbor.

Russia`s state-owned natural gas monopoly, Gazprom, had threatened to shut off natural gas to Ukraine if Kiev did not pay $1.5 billion in debt to Gazprom; however, Ukraine disputes that figure, saying it`s $1.07 billion. Yushchenko said Ukraine had agreed to begin paying off the debt this week. Gazprom had said it would cut off natural gas to Ukraine on Tuesday evening if the debt wasn`t paid.

The dispute unnerved Gazprom`s European Union customers, who remember a similar Russia-Ukraine row over gas prices in 2006 that led to drastic disruptions in gas supplies across Europe in the dead of winter.

Putin`s warning to Ukraine comes just five days after he accused the West of embarking on military expansion that ultimately has triggered a new arms race. Putin has been especially critical of U.S. plans to deploy an anti-ballistic missile defense system based in the Czech Republic and Poland that would shield Europe and U.S. troops based there from a potential attack from Iran.

The Kremlin remains unconvinced that Iran would have long-range missile ability any time soon, and argues that modifications to the European system could be made in the future that pose a strategic threat to Russian national security.

Russia also views NATO`s eastward expansion as a threat to its security and an incursion into what it still regards as its sphere of influence. In 2004, former Soviet republics Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania joined the western military alliance. In addition to Ukraine, Georgia, a U.S.-allied former Soviet republic on Russia`s southern flank, is courting NATO membership.

Responding to Putin`s warning, Yushchenko stressed that his country`s constitution bars the deployment of foreign bases on Ukrainian territory. "Everything that Ukraine does in this direction is not in any way directed at any third country, including Russia," Yushchenko said.

By Alex Rodriguez, Chicago Tribune

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