Auteur: Andrew Rettman
Russian leader Vladimir Putin has said “the West” is encroaching on Russia and fomenting internal unrest, in his first foreign policy speech for a month.
He told a meeting of his internal intelligence service, the FSB, on Thursday (26 March), that “they are using their entire arsenal of means for the so-called deterrence of Russia: from attempts at political isolation and economic pressure to large-scale information war and special services operations”.
He noted that Nato is “building up its infrastructure near our borders” and said the alliance’s creation of an anti-missile shield is an attempt “to violate the existing nuclear parity”.
“The situation … will not change for the better if we succumb and yield at every step. It will only change for the better if we become stronger”, he added.
He also said “Western special services continue their attempts at using public, non-governmental and politicised organisations to … discredit the authorities and destabilise the internal situation in Russia”.
He claimed Russian counter-intelligence operations “resulted in the suspension of activity of 52 officers and 290 agents of foreign special services” last year.
“We will continue paying attention to non-governmental organisations that have foreign funding sources; we will … terminate any violations”.
Referring to EU and US sanctions on Russian firms, he added: “We see attempts to compromise the business reputation of Russian companies in any way possible”.
The same day, his foreign ministry spokesman, Alexander Lukashevich, extended a threat against Nato anti-missile shield participants.
The Russian ambassador to Denmark last week caused alarm by saying that if Danish ships host shield components, then Russia will target them with tactical nuclear missiles.
Lukashevich said on Thursday that “participants in this system should bear in mind that Russia has all the necessary means to neutralise such threats”.
Putin’s strident rhetoric comes after more than a month of near-silence following the murder of opposition activist Boris Nemtsov and the Russian leader’s subsequent, 11-day long, retreat from public view.
It also comes amid a lull in hostilities in Ukraine and amid EU deliberation on whether to extend economic sanctions.
His 11-day retreat prompted speculation of an internal power struggle in the Kremlin between anti-Western hawks and doves.
But the FSB speech indicates Russia will continue its confrontational approach.
Russian media, in the past three weeks, have multiplied reports that Ukrainian forces are violating the so-called Minsk 2 ceasefire accord.
At the same time, Nato officials and US diplomats note that Russia is building up troops and deploying heavy equipment on the outskirts of the Ukrainian city of Mariupol.
“Moscow is preparing the world for another offensive. The objectives are straightforward - to justify the offensive and to blame Ukraine for violating Minsk 2”, Roman Sohn, a Ukrainian activist, told EUobserver.
The former US ambassador to Ukraine, Steven Pifer, noted in an op-ed in Ukrainian media last week that: “Mariupol would be an important step to make a frozen separatist-occupied Donbas [in east Ukraine] economically viable”.
“Mariupol is the port through which much of the steel and other industrial products of the Donbas are exported. Mariupol is also key if the Russians desire a land bridge to Crimea”.
Putin’s references to Nato encroachment come after the alliance, at a summit in Wales last September, opted to create a rapid reaction force to deter Russian aggression in the Baltic region, and to build six new “command and control” facilities in former Iron Curtain countries.
It has also increased Baltic air-policing and military drills in reaction to the Ukraine crisis.
“We are implementing the biggest reinforcement of our collective defence since the end of the Cold War,” Nato secretary general Jens Stoltenberg said at a seminar in Washington on Wednesday.