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Putin sworn in as Ukraine war drifts toward possible direct conflict between Russia and the West

In his fifth presidential inauguration, Russian President Vladimir Putin said Russia was open to dialogue with the West, but “on an equal footing and with respect for each other’s interests.”

(CN) — Inside the gilded halls of the Kremlin, Russian President Vladimir Putin was sworn in Tuesday for another six-year term against a backdrop of battlefield gains by his troops in Ukraine, a chilling escalation of tensions with the West and solid support inside Russia.

Putin's inauguration, boycotted by most Western governments, took place inside the Grand Kremlin Palace and came two days before the Russian leader will preside over military parades for Victory Day, a deeply symbolic holiday to celebrate the Soviet win over Nazi Germany in World War II.

In a brief and somber speech, Putin praised his soldiers fighting in Ukraine and vowed to lead his country to victory and prosperity by looking after Russia's national security and interests, preserving its “centuries-old family values and traditions” and forging ties with friendly countries.

He also said Russia was open to talks with the West, but “on an equal footing and with respect for each other’s interests.”

“You, the citizens of Russia, have confirmed that the country is on the right course,” Putin said. “This is of great importance right now, as we face serious challenges. I see this as your deep awareness of our common historical goals, and unwavering resolve to defend our choices, our values, our freedom and Russia’s national interests.”

The war in Ukraine has entered a tremendously dangerous and uncertain phase that may even veer toward a direct conflict between Russia and NATO as Western leaders consider how best to ensure Ukrainian forces don't collapse in the face of Russia's superior military might.

The situation for Ukraine has become dire, Western and Ukrainian officials acknowledge. Each day brings new reports of Ukrainian troop losses and surrenders, retreats and lack of ammunition and equipment. In the West, hopes rest with the recent passage of $61 billion in U.S. military aid for Ukraine, but the package won't solve Ukraine's problems with a shortage of troops.

Increasingly, it even seems possible that Western troops may be sent into Ukraine to fight. In recent days, Russian sources, citing an Asia Times article by a former U.S. deputy undersecretary of defense, claimed troops with the French Foreign Legion had been sent close to the front lines, though France's defense ministry denied that.

Still, France, Poland, Finland and the Baltic nations have not ruled out sending troops to Ukraine and there is growing evidence that Western military officials, often acting as advisers, are becoming more active on the ground in Ukraine.

In recent weeks, French President Emmanuel Macron has repeatedly confirmed he would not rule out sending troops to Ukraine because, in his words, Europe cannot afford to allow Russia to win. But NATO allies, including Berlin, London and Washington, have dismissed sending forces, saying the risk of war with Russia is too great.

But the rhetoric from Western officials is becoming more confrontational.

British Foreign Secretary David Cameron drew an angry response from Russia after he said Britain would not object to Ukraine using British-supplied missiles to strike inside Russia. Previously, Britain had only backed striking Russian targets inside Ukrainian territory.

“Just as Russia is striking inside Ukraine, you can quite understand why Ukraine feels the need to make sure it's defending itself,” Cameron said during a visit to Kyiv last Thursday.

Poland has angered Moscow by voicing interest in receiving U.S. nuclear weapons. In the European Union, Russia is increasingly accused of carrying out aggressive actions. Baltic nations say Russia is disrupting flights by interfering with air traffic navigation by jamming global positioning systems.

Germany blames Moscow for being behind recent cyberattacks on the governing Social Democratic Party and against defense, aerospace, and high-tech companies.

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On Sunday, the Financial Times reported that European intelligence agencies believe Russian agents are plotting violent acts of sabotage against NATO infrastructure across the bloc.

The newspaper said Swedish security services believe Russia may behind a series of railway derailments; Czechia is investigating whether Russia attempted to destroy signaling systems on railways; Estonia says Russian agents were behind an an attack on the interior minister’s car and those of journalists.

In a major escalation, Putin on Monday ordered Russian troops to hold battlefield drills in the use of so-called tactical nuclear weapons along the border of Ukraine. Belarus said its forces would join the exercises. In April, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko said several dozen tactical nuclear warheads had been placed in his country.

Tactical nuclear weapons, which have never been used in war, are designed to cause massive damage, for example against large logistical hubs, command centers and military installations far from the battlefields. But unlike so-called strategic nuclear weapons, they are not meant to raze entire cities to ash.

The Russian Foreign Ministry said the military exercises were a response to “recent bellicose statements by Western officials” and NATO's moves to provide “direct assistance” to Ukraine, including advanced weapons, such as long-range missiles and F-16 fighter jets capable of launching nuclear missiles.

It also cited claims about the deployment of French troops inside Ukraine as a reason for the nuclear drills.

“It is difficult to perceive this other than as a manifestation of readiness and intention to enter into direct armed confrontation with Russia, which would mean a head-on military clash of nuclear powers,” the ministry said. “We note that the aggressive desire of NATO countries to undermine the security of the Russian Federation is gaining momentum.”

It said it hoped the nuclear drills “will cool down the 'hot heads' in Western capitals” and “help them realize the possible catastrophic consequences of the strategic risks they generate.”

Dmitry Medvedev, the former Russian president and deputy chairman of the Russian Security Council, sent a menacing message to London and Paris.

“Russia will respond to the sending of Western troops to Ukraine with a nuclear attack on Washington, Paris and London,” Medvedev wrote on social media. “The sending of their troops to the territory of Ukraine will mean the direct engagement of those countries in the war, to which we [i.e. Russia] will have to respond. And, alas, not on the territory of Ukraine; there will be a global catastrophe.”

As in the past, Western leaders denounced Russia's nuclear saber rattling as outrageously dangerous, but they have also treated Moscow's nuclear threats as blackmail and empty threats.

In his speech Tuesday, Putin said Russia was ready to open talks with Western leaders.

“We are not rejecting dialogue with Western states. The choice is theirs: whether they intend to continue trying to contain Russia’s development, continue the policy of aggression, the relentless pressure they have been exerting on our country for years, or seek a path to cooperation and peace,” he said. “We are open to a conversation without arrogance, conceit or exceptionalism — a dialogue on an equal footing and with respect for each other’s interests.”

But there is little likelihood of any talks taking place any time soon to end the war.

Switzerland is set to hold a Ukraine peace summit in June based on a set of demands from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, but it is unlikely to gain much traction because China may not attend because Russia will not be present. Russia has dismissed Zelenskyy's proposals, which call for Russia's withdrawal from Ukrainian territories.

Putin, now serving his fifth term as president, has been in power since Dec. 31, 1999, making him the longest-ruling leader in Moscow since Joseph Stalin.

Polls show that Putin's popularity has grown even more solid since he launched the invasion of Ukraine and dissent against his regime is minimal, though that can be explained in part by Russian authorities conducting a crackdown on antiwar voices.

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

Follow @cainburdeau
Categories / International, Politics

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