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Kremlin Offers Frosty Response to Blinken Letter as World Waits for Putin's Next Move

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  • The Kremlin has given its response to U.S. security proposals that were hand-delivered to Moscow on Wednesday.
  • Russia has repeatedly denied it is planning to invade Ukraine despite having amassed around 100,000 troops and military hardware at various points along its border with Ukraine.
  • Tensions have been high with its neighbor since 2014.

The Kremlin has given its response to U.S. security proposals that were hand-delivered to Moscow, saying it believes Russian views have not been taken into account.

While President Vladimir Putin has read the documents and will take time to study them, "it cannot be said that our views were taken into account, or that a readiness to take our concerns into account was demonstrated," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters Thursday, Reuters reported.

Likening current tensions in Europe as being reminiscent of the Cold War, Peskov said that it would take time for Moscow to review the U.S. response and that "it would be silly to expect a response on the next day."

Talks between Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken are expected in the next few days, however, with Blinken noting Wednesday that he believed discussions would continue "after Moscow has had a chance to read the paper and is ready to discuss next steps."

The reaction from the Kremlin comes a day after the U.S. delivered its written responses to Russia's security demands — including that Ukraine never be allowed to join the U.S. and Europe's military alliance NATO, and that the organization rolls back its deployments in Eastern Europe.

In its response, which was given to the Kremlin by the U.S. ambassador in Moscow, the United States repeated its previous refusal to concede to such demands, sticking instead to its commitment to NATO's "open-door" policy.

At the same time, Blinken told reporters in a press briefing that the U.S. response also offered Russia "a serious diplomatic path forward, should Russia choose it."

"We're open to dialogue, we prefer diplomacy, and we're prepared to move forward where there is the possibility of communication and cooperation if Russia de-escalates its aggression toward Ukraine, stops the inflammatory rhetoric, and approaches discussions about the future of security in Europe in a spirit of reciprocity," he said.

'No positive reaction'

Russia has repeatedly denied it is planning to invade Ukraine despite having amassed around 100,000 troops and military hardware at various points along its border with Ukraine. Tensions have been high with its neighbor since 2014, when it invaded and annexed Crimea. It has also supported a pro-Russian uprising in eastern Ukraine, provoking low-level fighting between separatists and Ukrainian troops ever since.

Putin has said Russia can place its troops wherever it likes on its territory, and Russia has accused the West of stoking hostilities and hysteria in the region.

The U.S. and NATO are not prepared to take Russia at its word that it will not invade Ukraine. NATO has placed its forces on standby and reinforced its positions in Eastern Europe, with more ships and fighter jets being sent to the region. The U.S., meanwhile, has put thousands of troops on heightened alert, meaning they are ready to be deployed to the region if the crisis escalates. 

Lavrov said Thursday that the U.S. response "allows us to expect the start of a serious conversation but on secondary issues."

"On the main question, there's no positive reaction in this document," he said, according to the Interfax news service.

He reportedly stated that the main issue for Russia is "the inadmissibility of further expansion of NATO to the East and the deployment of strike weapons that could threaten the territory of the Russian Federation."

Before Russia had received the U.S. response, Lavrov said he had made it clear to Blinken "that any further disregard for the legitimate concerns of the Russian Federation, which are associated primarily with the continued military exploration of Ukraine by the United States and its NATO allies against the background of the largescale deployment of the alliance's forces and weapons near our borders, would have the most serious consequences."

At the time, Lavrov had said such consequences were avoidable "if Washington positively responds to our draft agreements on security guarantees. We expect to receive a written reaction to each paragraph from the U.S. side next week."

Analysts agree that all eyes are now on Putin as the guessing game continues over what he will do next. Summing up that sentiment, Timothy Ash, senior emerging markets sovereign strategist at BlueBay Asset Management, put it in a research note Thursday:

"All eyes [are] on Putin, will he raise or fold in this high stakes poker game?"

Retired Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, a former commander of the U.S. Army Europe, which is responsible for advancing American strategic interests in Europe and Eurasia, told CNBC Thursday that he expects Putin to continue to build pressure on Ukraine and its allies "until somebody cracks."

"In other words, somebody gives in on one of his demands, whether it's a promise that Ukraine could never join NATO or promised withdrawal from certain countries, or things like that," he told CNBC's Hadley Gamble.

If no one cracks, Hodges said, "then I believe he will take the next step, which would be a new attack," warning that Putin was already appearing to prepare for an offensive.

"So what he does next is continue this exercise he's doing in Belarus, where you've got thousands of Russian troops joining up with the troops from Belarus for an exercise, I don't envision that those capabilities are going to be leaving anytime soon. … You've got more ships of the Russian Navy that are moving from the Baltic Sea towards, I believe, the Black Sea. We'll know [more about] that in a few days," he said.

He noted that a concentration of naval capability in these areas would enable Putin to conduct amphibious operations on the Black Sea coasts west of Crimea, and also in the Sea of Azov (which is connected to the Black Sea). 

"I think those are the most likely type of actions that are going to happen. Not a massive assault all around Ukraine, but probably more limited attacks, that would reduce his own casualties, but still would enable him to accomplish his objective, which is to show he can go wherever he wants, and to undermine [the] Ukrainian government," Hodges said.

What happens next?

The U.S. and its European allies in NATO will be closely watching for Russia's reaction in the coming hours and days.

Blinken said the U.S., which has led international crisis talks and diplomatic efforts to deescalate tensions between Russia and Ukraine, had "fully coordinated with Ukraine and our European allies and partners" when drafting its responses to Russia, and "sought their input and incorporated it into the final version delivered to Moscow."

He added that NATO will deliver to Moscow its own paper with ideas and concerns about collective security in Europe — and that the paper fully reinforces the U.S. response, and vice versa. 

The White House had shared its response paper with Congress but Blinken said the administration would not be releasing the document publicly "because we think that diplomacy has the best chance to succeed if we provide space for confidential talks. We hope and expect that Russia will have the same view and will take our proposals seriously."

He noted that there were still areas where there is potential for progress, "including arms control related to missiles in Europe, our interest in a follow-on agreement to the New START treaty that covers all nuclear weapons, and ways to increase transparency and stability."

Blinkin also said the U.S. had addressed the possibility of "reciprocal transparency measures" regarding the strength and readiness of forces in Ukraine, and measures to increase confidence regarding military exercises and maneuvers in Europe.

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