President Vladimir Putin privately threatened to invade Poland, Romania and the Baltic states, according to a record of a conversation with his Ukrainian counterpart.
“If I wanted, in two days I could have Russian troops not only in Kiev, but also in Riga, Vilnius, Tallinn, Warsaw and Bucharest,” Mr Putin allegedly told President Petro Poroshenko of Ukraine, reported Süddeustche Zeitung, a German newspaper.
If true, this would be the first time that Mr Putin has threatened to invade Nato or EU members. Any threat to send Russian troops into the capitals of Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Poland and Romania would cause grave alarm among Western leaders.
If Mr Putin were to act on this, Britain could find itself at war with Russia. All five countries mentioned in this alleged conversation are members of both the EU and Nato. They are covered by the security guarantee in Article V of Nato’s founding treaty, which states that “an attack on one is an attack on all”. In a speech in Tallinn earlier this month, President Barack Obama confirmed Nato’s commitment to this doctrine.
Mr Putin’s alleged threat bears similarities to remarks he made to Jose Manuel Barroso, the president of the European Commission, in which he warned: “If I want to, I can take Kiev in two weeks”.
Süddeustche Zeitung claims to have seen a European Union memorandum of a meeting between Mr Barroso and Mr Poroshenko in Kiev last week, during which the latter is said to have described Mr Putin’s threat.
The Russian president made these remarks in series of telephone conversations with Mr Poroshenko over the current ceasefire in eastern Ukraine.
Mr Putin also warned Mr Poroshenko not to put too much faith in the EU, saying that Russia could exert its influence and bring about a “blocking minority” among member states.
On Tuesday, Ukraine ratified a historic Association Agreement with the EU, placing the country on the path towards eventual EU membership. It was the refusal of the former president, Viktor Yanukovych, to sign this agreement last year that triggered the Ukraine crisis.
The EU recently announced further sanctions against Russia, focusing on the energy, financial and arms sectors. But there have been divisions among member states over sanctions, with many worried about the impact on their own economies.
The Baltic states are particularly nervous about Russian intentions, and Mr Obama sought to reassure them with his speech in Tallinn earlier this month.
“If you ever ask again ‘Who will come to help?’ you’ll know the answer: the Nato alliance, including the armed forces of the United States of America,” he said. “We’ll be here for Estonia. We will be here for Latvia. We will be here for Lithuania.”
Mr Poroshenko is the only alleged source for Mr Putin’s latest threat, and there will be concerns he might be motivated to exaggerate in order to strengthen EU and Nato support for Ukraine.
The European Commission refused to confirm or deny whether Mr Barroso had held such a conversation with Mr Poroshenko. “We will not conduct diplomacy in the press or discuss extracts of confidential conversations,” said Pia Ahrenkilde Hansen, the Commission spokesperson. “What matters to the EU and the Commission is to contribute to lasting peace, stability and prosperity in Ukraine.”