Russian President Vladimir Putin says "there's no need to be afraid of Russia"
Moscow (AFP) - Russia is not a threat to the West, President Vladimir Putin insisted in an interview published on Saturday, saying he was still committed to a Ukraine peace deal after a fresh flare-up in the country's east.
"I would like to say - there's no need to be afraid of Russia," Putin told Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera in an interview published Saturday, ruling out a major conflict between Russia and NATO member countries.
"The world has changed so much that people in their right mind cannot imagine such a large-scale military conflict today."
"We have other things to do, I can assure you," the Russian president said.
"Only a sick person -- and even then only in his sleep -- can imagine that Russia would suddenly attack NATO."
The Russian president spoke ahead of his visit to Italy next week that will include a meeting with Pope Francis.
Putin's interview was released by the Kremlin just as Group of Seven leaders are gearing up to meet in the Bavarian Alps for a summit this weekend without Russia.
In the interview, Putin stressed that Russia merely sought to defend itself from outside threats.
He pointed out that NATO members have defence expenditures that are 10 times Russia's military spending, adding that the US military budget was the biggest in the world.
To ensure a strategic balance, Russia will develop "systems to overpower anti-missile defences", Putin said.
"We have made significant progress in this direction," he added, without providing further details.
Russia's annexation of Crimea from Ukraine last year has jangled nerves in Europe, with Baltic and Nordic countries reporting an uptick in Russian military activity over the past year.
Pentagon officials said on Friday that the United States was considering a range of moves to beef up security, including bolstering missile defences or even deploying land-based missiles in Europe.
Speaking about the Ukraine crisis, Putin accused Kiev authorities of being unwilling to implement a European-brokered peace deal agreed in February in Minsk and enter into dialogue with pro-Moscow rebels.
"The problem is that representatives of the current Kiev authorities do not even want to sit down to talks with them," Putin said. "And there is nothing we can do about it," he added, urging the West to prod Kiev into negotiating with the rebels.
"We would like these agreements to be implemented," Putin said, stressing that Kiev should ensure autonomy for rebel-held territories and implement a law on municipal elections and on amnesty.
"The leaders of the self-proclaimed republics have publicly said that under certain conditions -- that is the implementation of these Minsk agreements -- they are ready to consider the possibility of considering themselves part of Ukraine."
"I believe this position should be considered as a serious, good preliminary condition to start serious negotiations," he said, urging the European Union to provide "greater financial assistance" to Kiev.
Ties between Russia and the West have plunged to their lowest level since the end of the Cold War, with Moscow being accused of inciting a separatist rebellion in eastern Ukraine.
Putin said Moscow was ready to build an equal partnership with the EU and accused Brussels of pursuing relations based solely "on material interests".
"We never treated Europe like a mistress," he said, using a metaphor suggested by an Italian journalist.
"I speak absolutely seriously now. We always offered a serious relationship."
He accused the EU of rupturing Russia's economic ties with fellow ex-Soviet nations, saying if Baltic nations joined the EU power grid, Moscow would have to fork out up to 2.5 billion euros ($2.7 billion) to build new transmission lines.
If Ukraine chose to join the European power grid too, the costs for Russia would grow to some 8-10 billion euros, Putin added.