Vladimir Putin has said Russian forces could conquer the Ukrainian capital, Kiev, in two weeks if he so ordered, the Kremlin has confirmed.
Moscow declined to deny that the president had spoken of taking Kiev in a phone conversation on Friday with José Manuel Barroso, the outgoing president of the European commission.
Yuri Ushakov, a Kremlin foreign policy adviser, said on Tuesday that the Barroso leak had taken Putin’s remarks out of context.
“This is incorrect, and is outside all the normal framework of diplomatic practice, if he did say it. This is simply not appropriate for a serious political figure,” he said of the Barroso leak, according to the Russian Interfax news agency.
EU leaders held a summit on Saturday to decide who should run the union for the next five years, but the session was quickly preoccupied by Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and how to respond.
Barroso told the closed meeting that Putin had told him Kiev would be an easy conquest for Russia, according to the Italian newspaper, La Repubblica. According to the account, Barroso asked Putin about the presence of Russian troops in eastern Ukraine. Nato says there are at least 1,000 Russian forces on the wrong side of the border. The Ukrainians put the figure at 1,600.
“The problem is not this, but that if I want I’ll take Kiev in two weeks,” Putin said, according to La Repubblica.
The Kremlin did not deny Putin had spoken of taking Kiev, but instead complained about the leak of the Barroso remarks.
Petro Poroshenko, the Ukrainian president, attended the EU summit and painted an apocalyptic picture of the conflict, with EU leaders dropping their usual public poise in a heated debate.
Dalia Grybauskaite, the Lithuanian president, declared Russia was “at war with Europe”. The German chancellor, Angela Merkel, the main mediator with Putin, was said to be furious with the Russian leader, warning that he was “irrational and unpredictable”, while David Cameron was said to have raised the issue of Britain discussing policy options regarding Putin.
Cameron likened the west’s dilemma with Putin to relations between the then British prime minister, Neville Chamberlain, with Adolf Hitler in Munich in 1938, when Anglo-French appeasement encouraged the Nazi leader to launch the second world war the following year.