U.S. President Joe Biden warned Russian President Vladimir Putin that Russia would be hit with "strong economic and other measures" as punishment should Moscow launch an offensive against Ukraine, the White House said.
The two leaders held a video conference on December 7, their third direct talks since Biden took office in January.
The meeting came as already tense relations between Washington and Moscow are poised to plummet further over threats of a new potential invasion of Ukraine by Russian forces.
In recent months, Putin and other Russian officials have said, with increasing bluntness, that the prospect of Ukraine ever joining NATO was a “red line” that would be met with an unspecified response from Moscow.
Ukrainian officials have said as many as 90,000 Russian troops are deployed in regions near the Ukrainian border and on the Crimean Peninsula, which Russia seized in 2014. Last weekend, unnamed U.S. officials told The Washington Post and other U.S. news media that Russia was poised to use up to 175,000 troops in a multi-front offensive against Ukraine early next year.
The military buildup near Ukraine is one of the largest in years, setting off alarm bells in Ukraine and Western capitals.
"President Biden voiced the deep concerns of the United States and our European allies about Russia’s escalation of forces surrounding Ukraine and made clear that the U.S. and our allies would respond with strong economic and other measures in the event of military escalation," the White House said.
Biden also made no “commitments or concessions” on Putin's demands, the White House said.
The Kremlin said Putin told Biden that NATO was bolstering its military capabilities near Russia's borders and "making dangerous attempts to conquer Ukrainian territory.”
"Therefore, Russia is seriously interested in obtaining reliable, legally fixed guarantees that rule out eastward NATO expansion and the deployment of offensive strike weapons systems in states adjacent to Russia," the Kremlin said.
Though Ukraine is not a member of NATO, and is unlikely to be for some years, Russia views the prospect of Kyiv joining the alliance as a threat following NATO’s expansion into former Soviet bloc nations in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
Afterward, foreign policy advisers for both presidents offered additional insights on the talks.
In Moscow, Kremlin aide Yury Ushakov appeared to give a downbeat assessment.
"It's hard to expect any sudden breakthroughs, but the presidents demonstrated their willingness to continue practical work and begin discussing sensitive issues that seriously concern Moscow," Ushakov was quoted by Reuters as saying.
White House national-security adviser Jake Sullivan said Biden told Putin that “things we did not do in 2014, we are prepared to do now,” in a reference to U.S. sanctions on Russia over its annexation of Crimea and support for separatists in eastern Ukraine.
It was unclear exactly what punishment the Biden administration was threatening to wield if Russia were to launch an attack on Ukraine. Some analysts have pointed to the possibility that Russia could be cut off from the international system of financial payments known as SWIFT, a move that would devastate the Russian economy.
"There was a lot of give and take, there was no finger-wagging, but the president was crystal clear where the United States stands on all of these issues," Sullivan said.
"We still do not believe that President Putin has made a decision. What President Biden did today was lay out very clearly the consequences if he chooses to move,” Sullivan added.
Biden will talk to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy on December 10, Sullivan said.
Another possible punitive measure would be a renewed effort to block Nord Stream 2, the Baltic Sea pipeline that will significantly increase Russian gas supplies to Europe via Germany once it is approved by regulators.
Earlier this year, the Biden administration reached a deal with Germany that averted sanctions on the pipeline’s operator, removing a major irritant in relations between the two allies. But in recent days German officials have warned a Russian invasion of Ukraine would put an end to the pipeline.
If Russia wants its gas to flow through Nord Stream 2, “it should not invade Ukraine,” Sullivan told reporters.
Ukraine has been fighting a war against Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine since early 2014 that has killed more than 13,200 people. Russia asserts Kyiv is failing to meet its commitments under the 2014 and 2015 Minsk agreements aimed at putting an end to the conflict.
In their meeting, Putin told Biden that Ukraine was taking a "destructive line" aimed at dismantling implementation of the Minsk agreements, the Kremlin said.
After Biden and Putin met in Geneva in June, many experts hoped that the Ukraine conflict would inch toward resolution, as Washington and Moscow looked for ways to arrest the downward spiral in relations.
The two leaders spoke by telephone in July, when Biden called on Putin to do more to crack down on ransomware and hacking attacks against the United States. Many of the leading ransomware groups either operate in, or originate from, Russia.
Biden has also dispatched other senior administration officials, including CIA Director William Burns and veteran Russian expert Victoria Nuland, now undersecretary of state for political affairs, to Moscow to try to mend fences.
Prior to the video conference, Biden spoke with leaders from Britain, France, Germany, and Italy and "agreed to stay in close touch on a coordinated and comprehensive approach in response to Russia’s military buildup on Ukraine’s borders", the White House said.
After the talks with Putin, Biden held another call with European leaders in which he discussed the consequences of Russian military action in Ukraine.
“The leaders underscored their support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, as well as the need for Russia to reduce tensions and engage in diplomacy,” according to the White House.