A picture of Putin is used as target practice at a shooting range in Lviv, Ukraine. (AFP)
Moscow, Sept. 2: President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia reportedly told a European official that he could “take Kiev in two weeks” if he wanted to, adding a new dimension to the tensions building in Ukraine as Russian forces become more involved in the fighting there.
As Nato leaders gather in Wales for a summit meeting, Putin’s remarks and the increasing presence of Russian military units in Ukraine have posed a stark new challenge to the alliance about how to respond to Moscow’s apparent willingness to exert military force to achieve its foreign policy goals.
The Kremlin did not deny the remark, which was published in the Italian newspaper La Repubblica yesterday, but today it denounced the European official, Josť Manuel Barroso, for leaking details of what Putin understood to be a private telephone call.
“Whether these words were said or not, in my viewpoint, the quote given is taken out of context, and it had an absolutely different meaning,” said Yuri Ushakov, a Kremlin aide, according to the Interfax news service.
It was the first Kremlin response to the article, in which Barroso, the president of the European Commission, relayed Putin’s response to his question of whether Russian troops had crossed into eastern Ukraine.
“That is not the question,” Barroso said Putin told him. “But if I wanted to, I could take Kiev in two weeks.”
This evening, Vladimir Chizhov, the Russian envoy to the EU, said that Russia had both an audio recording and a written record of the conversation, and he issued Barroso a two-day ultimatum about their release to “dispel any misunderstandings”.
Putin is known for littering his public statements with twists of braggadocio, immortalised in a vow he made as Prime Minister in 1999 to root out terrorism in Russia. “If we catch them in the toilet, we’ll whack them in the outhouse,” he said of the terrorists then.
Today, however, Ushakov said that it was Barroso who was out of line if he had relayed a diplomatic conversation to the newspaper. “It appears to me to be simply unworthy of a serious political figure,” he said.
The war of words has expanded across Europe in advance of the Nato summit meeting on Thursday and Friday, when the alliance’s leaders are expected to endorse a rapid-reaction force of 4,000 troops for Eastern Europe.
That prompted a senior Russian military official to announce that the country would revise its military doctrine to account for “changing military dangers and military threats,” he said.
In an interview with the state news agency RIA Novosti released this morning, the official, Mikhail Popov, the deputy secretary for Russia’s Security Council, called the expansion of Nato “one of the leading military dangers for the Russian Federation”.