WILMINGTON, Del. — President Joe Biden warned Russia’s Vladimir Putin on Thursday that the U.S. could impose new sanctions against Russia if it takes further military action against Ukraine, while Putin responded that such a U.S. move could lead to a complete rupture of ties between the nations.
The two leaders spoke frankly for nearly an hour amid growing alarm over Russia’s troop buildup near Ukraine, a crisis that has deepened as the Kremlin has stiffened its insistence on border security guarantees and test-fired hypersonic missiles to underscore its demands.
Further U.S. sanctions “would be a colossal mistake that would entail grave consequences,” said Putin’s foreign affairs adviser Yuri Ushakov, who briefed reporters in Moscow after the Biden-Putin phone conversation. Biden also heard that Putin had told him that Russia would behave the same as the U.S. if they deployed offensive weapons close to American borders.
White House officials provided a more restrained post-call readout. It suggested the leaders acknowledged that there are areas where both sides can make significant progress. However, they also recognized differences that may be difficult to solve.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Biden “urged Russia to de-escalate tensions with Ukraine” and “made clear that the United States and its allies and partners will respond decisively if Russia further invades Ukraine.”
Putin asked for the call. This is the second meeting between leaders this month ahead of talks between high-ranking U.S. officials and Russian officials in Geneva on Jan. 9-10. Following the Geneva talks, a meeting will take place in Russia-NATO Council Jan. 12, and in Vienna at the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe Jan. 13.
White House officials said Thursday’s call lasted 50 minutes, ending after midnight in Moscow.
Biden told Putin the two powers now face “two paths”: diplomacy or American deterrence through sanctions, according to a senior administration official. Biden said the route taken, according to the official who briefed reporters on the condition of anonymity, will “depend on Russia’s actions in the period ahead.”
Russia has made clear it wants a written commitment that Ukraine will never be allowed to join NATO and that the alliance’s military equipment will not be positioned in former Soviet states, demands that the Biden administration has rejected.
Biden informed Putin that there was still a diplomatic way to go, even as Russia has sent an estimated 100,000 soldiers toward Ukraine. Kremlin officials are stepping up their demands for more guarantees from NATO or the U.S.
White House officials claimed that Biden stated clearly that sanctions would be used by the U.S. to cause serious economic harm if Putin decided to invade Ukraine.
Putin responded strongly.
He “noted that it would be a mistake that our ancestors would see as a grave error. A lot of mistakes have been made over the past 30 years, and we would better avoid more such mistakes in this situation,” Ushakov said.
Russia’s demands are to be discussed during the talks in Geneva, but it remains unclear what, if anything, Biden would be willing to offer Putin in exchange for defusing the crisis.
Moscow requested that NATO withdraw Ukraine from its membership and all other ex-Soviet countries be included in draft security documents. They also asked for a reduction of military operations in Central and Eastern Europe.
The U.S. and its allies have refused to offer Russia the kind of guarantees on Ukraine that Putin wants, citing NATO’s principle that membership is open to any qualifying country. But, they did agree to have talks with Russia about its concerns.
Moscow’s security request has raised concerns about whether Putin is asking for unrealistic requirements in order to expect a Western rejection, which would allow him to invade.
Steven Pifer, who served as U.S. ambassador to Ukraine in the Clinton administration, said the Biden administration could engage on some elements of Russia’s draft document if Moscow is serious about talks.
However, NATO’s key members are not keen to expand the alliance at this time. The U.S. and allies could also be receptive to language in the Russians’ draft document calling for establishing new consultative mechanisms, such as the NATO-Russia Council and a hotline between NATO and Russia.
“The draft treaty’s proposed bar on any NATO military activity in Ukraine, eastern Europe, the Caucasus, or Central Asia is an overreach, but some measures to limit military exercises and activities on a reciprocal basis might be possible,” Pifer, who is now a senior fellow at Brookings Institution, wrote in an analysis for the Washington think tank.
Biden and Putin met in Geneva last June to talk about tensions in America-Russia relations. They are unlikely to participate in January’s talks.
Last week, Russia test-fired Zircon hypersonic missiles, a move Russian officials said was meant to help make Russia’s push for security guarantees “more convincing.” The test was the first time Zircon missiles were launched in a salvo, indicating the completion of tests before the new missile enters service with the Russian navy next year and arms its cruisers, frigates and submarines.
U.S intelligence had earlier this month discovered that Russia was planning a military offensive, which could start as soon as 2022. However, Putin has yet to decide whether or not to go ahead with the operation.
Oleksiy Danilov, the secretary of Ukraine’s Security and Defense Council, said Thursday his country believes there is no immediate threat of a major Russian invasion.
“Our experts say that the Russian Federation just physically can’t mount a big invasion of our territory,” Danilov said. “There is a time period needed for preparations.”
According to Chuck Pritchard of U.S. European Command, surveillance flights by the U.S. army in Ukrainian airspace have been made this week. One such flight was Thursday, when an Air Force E-8C JSTARS airplane flew. The plane has the capability to gather intelligence about ground forces.
Russia denied that it intended to invade Ukraine and has, at the same time, accused Ukraine of planning to forcefully retake control of areas held by Moscow-backed rebels. Ukraine denies the claims.
At the same time, Putin has warned that Moscow will have to take “adequate military-technical measures” if the West continues its “aggressive” course “on the threshold of our home.”
Putin expressed concern last month that NATO might use Ukrainian territory to deploy missiles capable of reaching Moscow within five minutes. He also stated that Zircon would provide Russia with a similar capability.
As Biden prepared for the talks with Putin, the administration also sought to highlight its commitment to Ukraine and drive home that Washington is committed to the “principle of nothing about you without you” in shaping policy that affects European allies. The Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke with Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the Ukrainian President.
The past military incursions of Putin are a significant part of our history.
Russian forces invaded the Black Sea peninsula in Crimea, capturing the land from Ukraine. Russia’s annexation of Crimea was one of the darker moments for President Barack Obama on the international stage.
The U.S.-Russia relationship was badly damaged near the end of President George W. Bush’s administration after Russia’s 2008 invasion of its neighbor Georgia after Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili ordered his troops into the breakaway region of South Ossetia.
Biden spoke with Putin while he is visiting Delaware during his week-long visit. A photo was distributed by the White House showing President Biden speaking with Putin from his desk, which is lined with photos of family members.
Vladimir Isachenkov contributed to this report from Moscow. This report was contributed by Dasha Litvinova, Robert Burns, and Yuras Karamanau, all Associated Press journalists, from Kyiv (Ukraine).