U.S. President Joe Biden has urged his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, to de-escalate simmering tensions in a phone call aimed at intensifying diplomacy amid a buildup of Russian troops near the border with Ukraine and the Kremlin’s demands for sweeping security guarantees.
During a 50-minute call on December 30, the two leaders held a “serious and substantive” exchange to set the groundwork for three sets of upcoming talks early next month, a senior Biden administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive diplomatic matters, told reporters.
U.S. and Russian officials will meet January 9-10 in Geneva to discuss arms control and mounting tensions over Ukraine under their bilateral Strategic Stability Dialogue. Then a separate meeting of the Russia-NATO Council will be held in Brussels on January 12, followed a day later by a meeting in Vienna within the framework of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which includes the United States, its European allies, Ukraine, and Russia.
“Biden very much saw this call as setting the conditions for…pragmatic, results-oriented diplomacy” at the upcoming meetings, the senior U.S. official said.
A Kremlin readout of the call posted on December 31 said that Biden told Putin the United States has no intention of introducing offensive weaponry on Ukrainian territory.
The United States has delivered more than $2.5 billion in military aid to Ukraine since 2014, including lethal weapons to help government forces battle Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine.
Putin told Biden that the introduction of “massive” sanctions against Russia by the United States in the event of an escalation in Ukraine could threaten “a complete breakdown of Russian-American relations,” the Kremlin’s account said.
Russia earlier this month laid out sweeping demands for security guarantees from NATO as it amassed some 100,000 troops on its border with Ukraine, triggering fears of an invasion and a flurry of diplomacy, including another call between the two leaders on December 7.
Russia is seeking legal guarantees that NATO will not accept new members on its border, including Ukraine and Georgia. It also wants NATO to halt military drills near its borders and roll back military deployments in Central and Eastern Europe.
Putin last week called on the West to “immediately” give Russia those guarantees. The Biden administration has said that some Russian demands are “unacceptable,” and that each country has the sovereign right to choose its own security arrangements. But Washington has also signaled that discussing other Russian proposals -- including those on arms control, deconfliction of military forces, and the conflict in eastern Ukraine -- could yield results.
“Both leaders acknowledged that there were likely to be areas where we could make meaningful progress as well as areas where agreements may be impossible, and that the upcoming talks would determine more precisely the contours of each of those categories,” the senior U.S. official said.
During the call, Biden also reiterated that any invasion of Ukraine would be met with crushing economic sanctions from the United States and its partners as well as a greater NATO presence in Central and Eastern Europe.
Putin told Biden that any sanctions would be a “colossal mistake” that would lead to a “total severance of relations” between Russia and the United States, Kremlin aide Yuri Ushakov said.
Overall, Ushakov said Russia was satisfied with the phone conversation and the prospects for further diplomacy early next year, which he said centered on security guarantees that Moscow wants from the West.
The Eurasia Group, a U.S.-based political risk consultancy, said in a note to clients that the Russia-initiated call underscores the pressure Putin is applying for a quick start to negotiations. However, they warned talks would be slow and "face significant obstacles."
Nonetheless, the call was an opportunity for Putin “to air his grievances, to influence the forthcoming series of bilateral, U.S.-Russia, and OSCE meetings in the second week of January, and, just as important, to shape the Russian news cycle...to demonstrate that he took Russian concerns straight to the U.S. president,” Yuval Weber, an expert on Russian military and political strategy at Texas A&M's Bush School in Washington, D.C., told RFE/RL following the call.
Russia invaded and annexed Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula in 2014 and backs separatists in eastern Ukraine fighting a nearly eight-year war against Kyiv's forces.
Peace talks to end the fighting have stalled as Moscow and Kyiv disagree over the interpretation of the framework signed in 2015 known as the Minsk agreements. Germany and France are mediating those talks.
U.S. officials have emphasized that no decisions about Europe’s security architecture would be made without agreement from Ukraine and European allies.
"We have heard very clearly from our partner, and we hear constantly that all issues related to Ukraine will be resolved together with Ukraine," including its NATO membership aspirations, Ukraine's ambassador to the United States, Oksana Markarova, told RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service in an interview to be aired on January 1 .
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy ahead of Biden's call with Putin to reiterate Washington’s “unwavering support for Ukraine’s independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity," the State Department said.
Biden plans to speak with Zelenskiy soon after the call with Putin.
Weber said Ukraine’s membership in NATO or a bilateral military alliance between the United States and Ukraine “is either many years away or purely fantastical, so it's both easy for Biden to say it won't happen and gleefully be accepted by the Russian side as a concession.”
John Herbst, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, said Putin had sought another phone call “to build on the momentum” he perceived coming out of his last discussion with Biden on December 7.
Putin “still believes he can get a concession or two out of us,” Herbst said, adding that just holding the call itself is a “kind of concession” to the Russian leader.
Herbst said he doesn’t expect Russia to invade Ukraine.
“I think he's looking again to use this crisis -- which he created -- to see if there's some wiggle room, either from the U.S. or from Germany and France in terms of the Minsk talks or from Ukraine,” said Herbst, who is now an analyst at the Washington-based Atlantic Council.