US President Joe Biden has spoken with his Ukrainian counterpart Volodymyr Zelenskyy amid ongoing efforts to defuse tensions over Russia’s military buildup on the border with Ukraine.
Biden and Zelenskyy’s call on Thursday comes just days after the US president held a two-hour discussion with Vladimir Putin, urging the Russian leader to take the path of diplomacy to de-escalate the situation or face harsh economic sanctions.
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“The President of the United States informed me of the content of his negotiations with Putin,” Zelenskyy wrote on Twitter on Thursday afternoon after what he said was a 90-minute conversation with Biden.
“We also discussed possible formats for resolving the conflict in Donbas and touched upon the course of internal reforms in Ukraine,” the Ukrainian president added, referring to the region in eastern Ukraine.
Finished a 1.5-hour conversation with @POTUS. The President of the United States informed me of the content of his negotiations with Putin. We also discussed possible formats for resolving the conflict in Donbas and touched upon the course of internal reforms in Ukraine. pic.twitter.com/boKzAdiyeU
— Володимир Зеленський (@ZelenskyyUa) December 9, 2021
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.
US intelligence agencies have warned that Putin could be in position to launch a large-scale offensive involving as many as 175,000 troops in early January.
Russia has denied it plans to invade Ukraine, but Putin has warned any expansion of US military hardware into Ukraine, as well as the country’s admittance into NATO, are “red lines” that must not be crossed.
In 2014, Moscow annexed Crimea from Kyiv, and Russian-backed separatists seized a swath of territory in eastern Ukraine, igniting a conflict that continues to simmer to this day.
Putin on Tuesday presented Biden with a demand for legally binding security guarantees that would rule out the expansion of NATO, the Kremlin said after the call between the two leaders.
The US has repeatedly said that NATO members control who joins the alliance, however. Senior Biden administration officials also have said that while they do not know whether Putin has decided to invade Ukraine, “he’s putting in place the capacity to do so on short order”.
Al Jazeera’s Charles Stratford, reporting from Kherson in southern Ukraine ahead of the Biden-Zelenskyy call, said the Ukrainian president was hoping to hear more support from the US and its NATO allies on Thursday. “There is incredible pressure on Ukraine,” Stratford said.
“Certainly analysts are saying that they foresee President Biden as having no option but to try and get some sort of concessions out of the Ukrainians because of the amount of pressure put on Ukraine and, indeed, NATO by President Putin,” he continued.
“The general message is that Biden needs to put pressure on Zelenskyy without being seen as conceding to what the US, NATO and Ukraine continue to describe as being Russian aggression.”
The White House did not immediately provide a readout of the Zelenskyy call on Thursday.
“The president’s intention going into this call was to provide an update for President Zelenskyy on his call with President Putin and underscore our support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki earlier told reporters.
After speaking with the Ukrainian president, Biden also consulted the leaders of nine Eastern European members of NATO, known as the Bucharest Nine.
The White House said earlier this week that Biden aimed to brief the US’s NATO allies “on his call with President Putin, hear their perspectives on the current security situation, and underscore the United States’ commitment to transatlantic security”.
At the same time, the US and top European allies are engaging in a discussion with Russia about Putin’s concerns over any future NATO expansion and “whether or not we can work out any accommodations” to reduce tensions, Biden said at the White House on Wednesday.
In recent days, the US has stepped up shipments of military assistance to Ukraine with small arms, ammunition and field deployment of Javelin anti-tank missiles, Pentagon Spokesman John Kirby also said on Wednesday.
However, Biden said that day that the US and its NATO allies are not prepared to intervene militarily in Ukraine in the event of a large-scale Russian invasion.
“I made it very clear, if in fact he invades Ukraine, there will be severe consequences,” the US president told reporters. “But the idea the United States is going to unilaterally use force to confront Russia from invading Ukraine is not … in the cards right now.”
US Senator Bob Menendez, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, this week warned that the sanctions being prepared by the US and its allies are “at the maximum end of the spectrum”.
“Putin himself, as well as his inner circle, would lose access to bank accounts in the West. Russia would effectively be cut off and isolated from the international economic system,” Menendez said.