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U.K.'s Boris Johnson visits Kyiv to stand with Ukraine and Putin remarks on tensions

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Vladimir Putin spoke publicly about Ukraine today for the first time since late last year. The Russian president accused the U.S. of ignoring Russia's legitimate security concerns. Meanwhile in Kyiv, Ukraine, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Putin is trying to redraw the security map of Europe. It was a day of dueling press conferences, and despite the rhetoric, diplomacy continued between the U.S. and Russia.

NPR's Charles Maynes is following this from Moscow, and NPR's Joanna Kakissis is in Kyiv. Welcome to you both.

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: Hi there.

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: Thanks, Ari.

SHAPIRO: Charles, Putin has kept the world guessing on his intentions as tensions build with the West over Russian forces just on the border with Ukraine. What did he have to say today?

MAYNES: You know, in comments to reporters at the Kremlin, President Putin repeated what his ministers really have been saying all along - that Western powers had thus far ignored key Russian security demands regarding NATO's expansion eastward and into Ukraine in particular. But Putin had a new line of argument.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: So here, Putin is saying, "let's assume Ukraine becomes part of NATO and tries to forcibly retake Crimea. What are we supposed to do then," said Putin, "go to war with the NATO bloc? Has anyone even thought of this?" And, of course, he suggested they had not.

Now, of course, Crimea is the peninsula Russia legally and forcibly seized from Ukraine back in 2014. But Putin's argument here is really that Ukraine's drive to join the alliance was what was creating this threat to Russia and, it follows, a threat to Ukraine by the Russian response.

SHAPIRO: Dueling press conferences, as we said. So in Ukraine, Joanna, what is the message that British Prime Minister Boris Johnson brought to Kyiv today?

KAKISSIS: Well, he flew to Kyiv to meet with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, and his message was, we are standing with Ukraine in every possible way. We are training Ukrainian military personnel. We are sending anti-tank weaponry.

And today, Boris Johnson also said that the U.K. is sending the equivalent of $119 million to help Ukraine fight corruption and become energy independent. He also repeated this idea that Russia is a threat. He said Russian President Vladimir Putin is, quote, "holding a gun to Ukraine's head," and he warned of severe consequences if Russia attacked Ukraine again.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRIME MINISTER BORIS JOHNSON: It goes without saying that a further Russian invasion of Ukraine would be a political disaster, a humanitarian disaster. In my view, it would also be, for Russia, for the world, a military disaster as well.

KAKISSIS: So the press conference was a little bit overshadowed by Johnson's problems at home. All the British reporters were asking about the scandal he and members of his government are facing for attending parties during the coronavirus lockdown. But Boris Johnson insisted his mind and focus is on what matters now, and he says that's Ukraine.

SHAPIRO: You know, the U.S. has been saying that a Russian attack could be imminent, and Zelenskyy has been trying to tamp that down. Joanna, was that difference in language on display today as well?

KAKISSIS: So Zelenskyy displayed this calm resolve. He wanted to make very clear that the conflict would not be Ukraine's to fight alone. Here he is speaking through a translator.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT VOLODYMYR ZELENSKYY: (Through interpreter) This is not going to be a war of Ukraine and Russia. This is going to be a European war, a full-fledged war, because no one is going to give away territories and people any longer.

KAKISSIS: So Zelenskyy is walking a fine line here. He doesn't want to overemphasize the danger Russia poses to his country, and that's because he doesn't want Ukrainians to panic. But he needs to keep his allies focused on supporting Ukraine.

And to that end, he talked today about this three-way partnership in the works with Ukraine, the U.K. and Poland. They would work together on security and trade issues, though we don't have any specifics on that yet.

SHAPIRO: Charles, is this difference in approach among the Western countries influencing Putin's tactics?

MAYNES: Well, it's interesting. You know, Putin's comments today followed meetings with the Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orban, who has really bucked the West by coming to Moscow. And Orban was here arguing that countries like Hungary could be friends with Western powers and also be good partners with Russia. You know, he praised Russia's gas exports to Hungarian homes, even the Kremlin's handling of past Western sanctions, saying that they had hurt Hungary much more than they hurt Russia. And all this, you know, seemed designed to have Europe think twice about whether they want to follow the U.S.' lead in confronting Russia.

Meanwhile, Putin insisted that this whole crisis was really about the U.S. using Ukraine as an instrument to, quote, "contain Russia" and enforce conditions on European allies. And, you know, as Putin is saying this, he's talking about wanting future talks to address all sides' security concerns, including Ukraine's and Europe's, you know, which suggests that he's trying to cleave into differences with the U.S. where they exist and leaving us guessing in the meantime.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Charles Maynes in Moscow and NPR's Joanna Kakissis in Kyiv. Thank you both.

MAYNES: Thank you.

KAKISSIS: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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