US President Joe Biden has warned his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin against any “military escalation” with Ukraine, as the two leaders held direct talks amid weeks of rising tensions over Russia’s military buildup near the Ukrainian border.
“Greetings, Mr President,” Putin said in a brief video clip released by the Kremlin from Tuesday’s virtual meeting between the two leaders, which the White House said lasted for just over two hours.
Biden said it was “good to see” the Russian president, adding that he hoped their next session would be in person.
In a statement after the call, the White House said Biden “voiced the deep concern” of the United States and its European allies “about Russia’s escalation of forces surrounding Ukraine” and made clear they “would respond with strong economic and other measures in the event of military escalation”.
“President Biden reiterated his support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and called for de-escalation and a return to diplomacy. The two presidents tasked their teams to follow up, and the U.S. will do so in close coordination with allies and partners,” the statement said.
Ukraine has said 94,000 Russian troops are massed along the border in the second such buildup so far this year, prompting a slew of warnings from top Biden administration officials seeking to deter Moscow from taking “significant aggressive moves” against Kyiv.
Biden said in advance of the summit that he was prepared to warn Putin of “high impact economic measures” if Moscow decided to invade Ukraine, instead urging the Russian president to take a diplomatic path.
For his part, Putin on Tuesday presented the US president with a demand for legally binding security guarantees that would rule out the expansion of NATO, the Kremlin said after the call.
Putin said NATO was bolstering its military potential near Russia’s borders and “making dangerous attempts to conquer Ukrainian territory”, the Kremlin said in a statement. “Therefore, Russia is seriously interested in obtaining reliable, legally fixed guarantees that rule out NATO expansion eastward and the deployment of offensive strike weapons systems in states adjacent to Russia.”
Biden administration officials have dismissed that demand, noting that only NATO members decide when other nations join the security alliance. “NATO member countries decide who is a member of NATO, not Russia. And that is how the process has always been and how it will proceed,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said on Monday.
But Russian authorities have said that NATO’s growing ties with Ukraine and the possibility of the alliance deploying missiles targeted against Russia there represented a “red line” it would not allow to be crossed.
In 2014, Moscow annexed Crimea from Ukraine and Russian-backed separatists seized a swath of territory in eastern Ukraine, igniting a conflict that has continued to simmer.
In Moscow earlier on Tuesday, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said “Russia has never planned to attack anyone. But we have our own concerns, our own red lines – the president spoke clearly about that”.
“Putin has repeatedly said that we look for good, predictable relations with the US,” Peskov told reporters, warning that US-Russia relations were, however, in “a rather dire state” and “quite lamentable”.
Mark Simakovsky, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and former State Department official, told Al Jazeera that if the Biden administration responds to Russian action against Ukraine, the response would “be focused on sanctions” and coordinated with the European Union.
“The EU is playing a critical role also in signalling to the Russian Federation that it is also going to take parallel steps,” Simakovsky said.
But Brett Bruen, also a former diplomat and now president of consulting firm Global Situation Room, said there was a sense of deja vu about sanctions.
“We have tried every type of economic sanction you can imagine and don’t have much to show for it,” he said. “We need to look at other tools.”
US talks with European allies
In the face of the Russian military buildup, the US and its European allies have emphasised a commitment to Ukraine’s territorial integrity and called on Russia to de-escalate tensions and seek a resolution through diplomacy.
Biden held a conference call with the leaders of France, Germany, Italy and the United Kingdom on Monday to discuss the situation, and he was slated to discuss his call with Putin with the European leaders again on Tuesday.
The US and its allies have called for Russia and Ukraine to return to negotiations brokered by France and Germany to resolve a border dispute in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine and implement the “Minsk Agreements”, a pair of ceasefire agreements reached in 2014 and 2015.
Agreed positions with @SecBlinken before the phone conversation of Presidents Biden and Putin. Agreed to continue joint & concerted action. Grateful to 🇺🇸 strategic partners & allies for the continued support of our sovereignty & territorial integrity. Nothing about 🇺🇦 without 🇺🇦
— Володимир Зеленський (@ZelenskyyUa) December 6, 2021
Meanwhile, they have reiterated their support “Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity”.
On Tuesday, an adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s chief of staff said the Biden-Putin call had not produced “sensations” – but expressed gratitude to the US president for his “unwavering support”.
“We support President Biden’s call on the Russian leader to return to diplomatic instruments and ensure de-escalation in our region. We will continue to coordinate with the American side to achieve concrete results in the interests of Ukraine,” Mykhailo Podolyak said in a statement.
A senior Biden administration official said this week that the US president is expected to speak with Zelenskyy in the coming days, as well.