By Vladimir Soldatkin
MOSCOW -Russia wants to avoid conflict with Ukraine and the West, President Vladimir Putin said on Thursday, but needs an "immediate" response from the United States and its allies to its demands for security guarantees.
Ukraine is at the centre of soaring East-West tensions after the United States and Kyiv accused Russia of weighing a new attack on its southern neighbour, an allegation Moscow denies.
"This is not our (preferred) choice, we do not want this," Putin said at his annual news conference when asked about the possibility of conflict with Ukraine.
He said Russia had received a generally positive initial response to security proposals it handed to the United States this month designed to defuse the current crisis and that he was hopeful about the prospect for negotiations, which he said would start early next year in Geneva.
But in a separate reply, Putin grew more heated when recalling how NATO had "brazenly tricked" Russia with successive waves of expansion since the Cold War, and said Moscow needed an answer urgently.
"You must give us guarantees, and immediately - now," he said.
Russia rejects Ukrainian and U.S. accusations that it may bepreparing an invasion of Ukraine as early as next month by tensof thousands of Russian troops deployed within reach of theborder of the fellow former Soviet republic. It says it needs pledges from the West - including a promisenot to conduct NATO military activity in Eastern Europe -because its security is threatened by Ukraine's growing tieswith the Western alliance as well as the possibility of NATO missiles being deployed against it on Ukrainian territory.
"We just directly posed the question that there should be no further NATO movement to the east. The ball is in their court, they should answer us with something," Putin said.
Tensions over Ukraine have pushed East-West relations to their lowest point in the three decades since the collapse of the Soviet Union. The United States, European Union and Group of Seven have all warned Putin he will face "massive consequences" including tough economic sanctions in the event of any new Russian aggression.
The topic surfaced repeatedly at Putin's marathon question-and-answer session, with the Russian leader seated alone in front of an audience of masked reporters on a giant stage at the cavernous Manezh Exhibition Centre near the Kremlin.
While looking forward to the upcoming talks with Washington, Putin was damning in his criticism of Ukraine.
He accused it of breaking its commitments under a 2015 deal meant to halt fighting in Ukraine's eastern Donbass area between Ukrainian and pro-Russian forces, and refusing to talk to representatives of two breakaway regions there.
Ukraine rejects Putin's stance that Moscow is just a mediator in the conflict, accusing it of providing direct backing to the separatist side. It has repeatedly offered direct talks with Russia, which Moscow has so far rejected.
Putin made clear he did not see President Volodymr Zelenskiy as a negotiating partner, accusing him of falling under the influence of "radical nationalist forces".
"How can I build a relationship with the current leadership, given what they are doing? It's practically impossible," he said.