Russian President Vladimir Putin has issued statements in reaction to US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin's official visit to Ukraine, Romania and Georgia this week where Austin told Ukrainian leaders there's an "open door to NATO" membership if the necessary defense spending and anti-corruption reforms are made.
"The military development of the territory [of Ukraine] is already underway, and this really poses a threat to Russia. We are aware of this," Putin said in public remarks Thursday before the Valdai International Discussion Club. "Let's see what will happen on the domestic political scene of Ukraine in the near future," he said.
"The Secretary of Defense has arrived, in fact, opening the doors for Ukraine to NATO, in fact, his statement should and can be interpreted in this way," Putin added.
However, the Russian leader suggested that NATO membership and the ensuing inevitable confrontation with Russia would not fundamentally arise through the will of the people, but through a West-backed clique of rulers holding "extreme political views".
"The Ukrainian people are not allowed and will not be allowed to form governing bodies that will directly represent their interests... Ukraine is realistically ruled by a small group of people who claim to have won the struggle for independence and who hold extreme political views, regardless of who the head of the state is in name," Putin said according to translations in Russian media.
"The silent majority voted for them in the hopes that they would fulfil their election promises, but the not so silent, aggressive nationalist minority suppressed their freedom to make decisions expected by the Ukrainian population. They are the ones to truly run the country," Putin described.
On Tuesday while meeting with top Ukrainian officials in Kiev, Defense Secretary Austin had called out Russia as an "obstacle to peace" in the region.
"Let's be clear, that Russia started this war and Russia is the obstacle to a peaceful resolution," Austin said during a joint briefing with his Ukrainian counterpart Andriy Taran.
"So we again call on Russia to end its occupation of Crimea, to stop perpetuating the war in eastern Ukraine, to end its destabilizing activities in the Black Sea and along Ukraine's borders," Austin said.
That prompted immediate warnings from the Kremlin of its "red lines" which would require "active measures". Austin had also charged that Russian intelligence has been carrying out "persistent cyberattacks" and demanded an immediate halt to its actions against the West.
It was Austin's second trip to Ukraine in less than two months, as Washington and Kiev work to lay the groundwork for deepening defense cooperation. Moscow has of late made veiled threats of launching military action should it perceive that NATO is expanding its military presence and base infrastructure into Ukraine.