Biden to urge Putin to return to diplomacy amid Ukraine ‘buildup’

US president held calls with leaders of France, Germany, Italy and Britain on Monday to discuss their ‘shared concern’ over Russia troop buildup.

Ukrainian servicemen attend a rehearsal of an official ceremony to hand over tanks and military vehicles to the Ukrainian forces as the country celebrates Army Day in Kyiv on December 6, 2021.
Ukrainian servicemen prepare to celebrate Army Day in Kyiv, Ukraine, on December 6, 2021 [File: Gleb Garanich/Reuters]

US President Joe Biden will warn his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin of “direct costs” should Moscow invade Ukraine, a senior Biden administration official has said, on the eve of a scheduled call between the two leaders, as the CIA director reported a buildup of Russian troops along the border.

Biden intends to “send a clear message to Russia that there will be genuine and meaningful and direct costs should they choose to go forward with a military escalation” with Ukraine, the official told reporters on condition of anonymity on Monday.

Late on Monday, the Wall Street Journal quoted Central Intelligence Agency Director William Burns as saying that he has seen “steady and unusual buildup” by Russia along the border with Ukraine.

The White House said Biden, in a call with leaders of France, Germany, Italy and Britain, discussed their “shared concern” about the buildup and “Russia’s increasingly harsh rhetoric.”

Biden, France’s Emmanuel Macron, German’s Angela Merkel, Italy’s Mario Draghi and Britain’s Boris Johnson underscored their support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and called on Russia to de-escalate tensions, the White House statement added said.

US State Department spokesman Ned Price also told reporters on Monday that Secretary of State Antony Blinken has spoken to Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskiy about the upcoming phone call between Biden and Putin.

Price said Biden will warn Putin that the US will use “high impact economic measures that we have refrained from using in the past.”

Price added that the US remains committed to NATO’s open door policy and that the alliance should remain ready to aspirants when they’re ready. Ukraine, a former Soviet republic, now aspires to join the European Union and NATO.

Tensions between Washington and Moscow have escalated in recent weeks over a major Russian troop build-up on its border with Ukraine, raising fears of a potential invasion and spurring warnings of new Western economic sanctions on Russia.

Biden and Putin will speak in a secure video conference on Tuesday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov announced over the weekend.

The Kremlin said last week that Putin during the discussion with Biden would seek binding guarantees that NATO would not expand to Ukraine.

The Russian president warned late last month that any expansion of NATO military infrastructure in Ukraine was a red line for his government, while the country has repeatedly warned the West against arming Ukraine.

Kadri Liik, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told Al Jazeera that Biden is not in a position to promise an official stop to potential NATO enlargement, and would instead try to de-escalate tensions in his call with Putin.

“[Biden] cannot clearly deliver on that demand, but I’m sure that he will try other means to de-escalate the situation because he doesn’t need a crisis in Ukraine,” Liik said. “His foreign policy priority is handling China. He is trying to stabilise the United States’ relationship with Russia, exactly in order to focus on China.”

In 2014, Moscow annexed Crimea from Ukraine and Russian-backed separatists seized a swath of territory in eastern Ukraine, igniting a conflict that continues to simmer to this day.

The Biden administration official said on Monday that Biden would make clear to Putin that “diplomacy is the responsible way” forward to avoid a crisis. “We are encouraging Russia to return to diplomatic avenues including the fulfilment of the Minsk agreements,” the official said.

The Minsk agreements, reached between Russia and Ukraine with members of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe beginning in 2014, call for peaceful resolution of the border conflict in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region.

The Biden administration official added that the US is not seeking a direct military confrontation with Russia, but said Washington would support its allies with additional military capabilities should Moscow invade.

US intelligence officials have determined that Russia has massed about 70,000 soldiers near its border with Ukraine and has begun planning for a possible invasion as soon as early next year.

“Our objective here is conveying diplomatically that this is the moment for Russia to pullback their military buildup at the border, that diplomacy is the right path forward,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki told reporters on Monday afternoon about the upcoming Biden-Putin call.

She added that the US would coordinate with its European partners on “a range of economic sanctions and steps that can be taken should President Putin decide to move forward”.

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy gave awards to Ukrainian service members at combat positions near the line of separation from Russian-backed rebels in the Donetsk region on December 6 [Ukrainian Presidential Press Service/Handout via Reuters]

A spokesman for outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel told reporters in Berlin on Monday that there has been a “lack of transparency” from the Kremlin and “increasingly aggressive Russian rhetoric” that “we cannot accept”.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken last week also warned Moscow of the “severe costs and consequences” it would pay if it invaded Ukraine, urging Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to seek a diplomatic exit from the crisis.

Blinken and Lavrov met in Stockholm, Sweden, on December 2 to discuss the rising tensions.


Lavrov said after the meeting that the US threatened new sanctions, but suggested the effort would not be effective. “If the new ‘sanctions from hell’ come, we will respond,” he said. “We can’t fail to respond.”

For his part, Biden said last week that he was crafting a “comprehensive” plan to deter Russian aggression against Ukraine, while also pushing back on Putin’s demands.

“We’ve been aware of Russia’s actions for a long time and my expectation is we’re going to have a long discussion,” Biden told reporters on Friday. Asked if he accepted Putin’s “red line” in Ukraine, Biden responded: “I won’t accept anybody’s red line”.

Ukraine is not a member of the NATO alliance, but officials have asked the US and its NATO allies to help prevent Russian military action. The US has been providing military assistance to Ukraine, including the deployment of advanced Javelin anti-tank weapons, in recent years.

Meanwhile, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said on Monday that he spoke with Blinken in advance of the call between the US and Russian presidents.

“Agreed to continue joint & concerted action. Grateful to US strategic partners & allies for the continued support of our sovereignty & territorial integrity. Nothing about Ukraine without Ukraine,” Zelenskyy tweeted.

The US administration official said earlier on Monday that Biden would also follow up with Zelenskyy in the coming days.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies