MOSCOW (Reuters) - President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman lashed out at the West on Friday and defended Russia’s actions in Ukraine, but said he hoped “extremely deep disagreements” would not lead to a new Cold War.
The remarks, broadcast on a main state channel while Putin presided over the opening of the Paralympic Games, seemed to be part of an effort to avoid a historic break with the West while giving no ground in the dispute over Ukraine.
Dmitry Peskov said “extremely deep disagreements of a conceptual nature between Russia and the European Union and the United States have already been registered”.
But he added: “There still remains hope ... that some points of agreement can be found as a result of dialogue - which our partners, thank God, have not yet rejected.”
Asked whether East and West were entering a new Cold War, Peskov replied: “I believe that it has not started and I would like to believe it will not start.”
Peskov said calls for talks between Russia and Ukraine with the West as a mediator “make us smile”. He said Western countries had failed to follow though on a February 21 peace deal between Ukraine’s Viktor Yanukovich and his foes, and that this had cost them their credibility.
Putin’s envoy did not join European diplomats in signing that deal as witnesses. But since Yanukovich’s overthrow, Moscow has said the document must be the basis for a solution to the crisis that began when he spurned pacts with the EU in November and vowed to pursue closer trade ties with Russia instead.
With a new pro-Western government in Kiev, Russia has taken control of the Crimean peninsula and is threatening to send the military into other parts of Ukraine if it sees a threat to Russian citizens or Russian speakers in the east and south.
Peskov said the Kremlin was not behind moves by leaders in mostly ethnic-Russian Crimea to secede and join Russia. But he said Moscow was concerned there would be ethnic persecution if groups involved in the turmoil that brought down Yanukovich went to Crimea.
“One does not need to exert much effort to imagine what will happen if those who stood behind the coup in Kiev reach the east or Crimea,” he said.
“I don’t think it would stop at pressure on activists who spoke out against them - I would say it’s more likely that in the case of Crimea, cleansing would begin.”
With the world and even Russians wondering about Putin’s motives in Ukraine, Peskov rejected the idea that Russia was trying to expand its borders, saying: “The gathering of lands in the style of past centuries is impossible.”
But he cast Russia as an increasingly attractive “magnet”, particularly for ethnic Russians.
“As soon as a state becomes sufficiently powerful, sufficiently stable, as soon as it starts to have prospects for development that are evident to all those around it, then naturally all those around begin to gravitate toward this state,” he said.
“In particular, our compatriots gravitate toward this state,” he said.
“This is a natural process of gathering of compatriots around their ... historic motherland, which is attractive and instils trust and which can be a serious guarantee of their security and a prosperous future.”
Reporting by Tatiana Ustinova; Writing by Steve Gutterman; Editing by Andrew Roche