President Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke for nearly an hour Thursday but neither backed down from an escalating standoff over Ukraine, where Moscow is massing troops along the border and demanding major concessions from the West to avoid a war.
Mr. Biden threatened more U.S. economic sanctions and beefed up NATO forces in neighboring countries. Mr. Putin warned that more sanctions would be a “grave error.”
The phone call between Mr. Biden and Mr. Putin comes as U.S. and Russian officials prepare for a series of high-stakes, in-person negotiations next month on Ukraine, NATO, European security, and other matters. For Mr. Biden, the growing crisis and the very real possibility of a hot war in Eastern Europe represents a monumental foreign policy challenge, one that could alter the course of his presidency.
But the president seems convinced that diplomacy can prevent more bloodshed.
Senior administration officials said few pleasantries were exchanged between the two leaders during their call, their second conversation in less than a month, all while nearly 100,000 Russian forces remain stationed along the border with Ukraine.
“The tone of the conversation between the two presidents was serious and substantive,” a senior administration official told reporters after the 50-minute call, which ended past midnight in Moscow.
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Mr. Biden stressed U.S. commitment to diplomacy and deescalation amid the standoff, according to officials, but said deterrence measures remain on the table. He said the U.S. approach going forward will largely depend on Russia’s actions over the near term.
“One is a path of diplomacy leading toward a deescalation of the situation and the other is a path that’s more focused on deterrence, including serious costs and consequences should Russia choose to proceed with a further invasion of Ukraine,” the official said.
“Those costs include economic costs, include adjustments and augmentations of NATO force posture of allied countries, include additional assistance to Ukraine to enable it to further defend itself,” the official said.
Earlier this month, Mr. Biden dismissed the idea of putting U.S. troops in Ukraine to deter a potential Russian invasion, and according to the Kremlin, Mr. Biden reiterated similar sentiments in Thursday’s call. The U.S. has, however, provided hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to Ukraine‘s military, delivered several rounds of Javelin anti-tank missiles that could slow Russian armored columns, and offered other assistance.
Mr. Putin’s foreign policy adviser, Yuri Ushakov, told reporters after the call that Mr. Biden “made it clear that the U.S. does not intend to deploy offensive strike weapons in Ukraine.”
The Kremlin also warned against new U.S. economic sanctions against Russia, a tactic both the Trump and Biden administrations have used repeatedly to deter and punish Russian bad behavior.
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Mr. Putin “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,” Mr. Ushakov said.
Russia‘s recent round of provocations toward Ukraine dates back to the Obama administration. In 2014, Russian forces seized Ukraine‘s Crimean Peninsula by force, effectively annexing it. In the years since, Russian-backed separatists have battled Ukrainian forces in the country’s disputed Donbas region.
But the movement of nearly 100,000 Russian troops to the border in recent months has raised the possibility of a much more bloody, prolonged conflict. And the Russian military last week test-fired cutting-edge hypersonic missiles in what analysts believe is a warning that the Kremlin is prepared for war.
To avoid that war, Russia earlier this month delivered a list of demands to the U.S. and its NATO partners, including guarantees that Ukraine and Georgia will never be admitted into the alliance. Moscow also demanded promises that U.S. or NATO military equipment won’t be positioned in former Soviet states — demands that the Biden administration has rejected.
U.S. officials acknowledged late Thursday that there may be “areas where agreements may be impossible,” but they held out hope that the Jan. 10 talks in Geneva could produce a resolution.
It remains unclear what, if anything, Mr. Biden would be willing to offer Mr. Putin in exchange for defusing the crisis.
Leading up to the talks, the White House said it expects to “continue what has been a very intense period of consultation on the U.S. side” with American allies and partners.
The two leaders hadn’t spoken since Dec. 7 when they had a tense video conference that lasted more than two hours.
Still, White House officials in some ways seemed to downplay Thursday’s call and cast it as a precursor to the Geneva talks.
“The call’s primary purpose seemed to be to set the sort of tone and tenor for the diplomatic engagements to come,” a White House official said. “I think also on the Russian side, part of a series of kind of end of the year calls that President Putin has been engaged in.”
Simon Miles, an assistant professor at Duke University Sanford School of Public Policy who studies Russia, said Thursday’s call comes at a “critical point in European security.”
“Russian troops are on Ukraine’s border in significant numbers, and in a configuration which has analysts rightly worried about offensive military action,” he said. “But one thing is clear: This is a crisis of the Kremlin’s making.”
There are fears in intelligence and military circles that Russia could be preparing for a multipronged offensive in 2022. Indeed, Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov said earlier this month that Moscow may be preparing for a large-scale military invasion at the end of January.
Russian officials, meanwhile, have insisted they have no plans to invade and say the troops are merely there for military exercises.
The White House said Mr. Putin made no declarations and gave no indication that Russia planned to invade Ukraine.
“But regardless, our focus is really on actions and indicators, not on words at this point,” an official said Thursday. “So we’re going to continue to monitor very closely the movement and build-up of Russian forces on the Ukraine border and prepare ourselves for whatever decision ultimately is made by the Russian president.”
Mr. Miles said while Mr. Putin’s endgame in the summit remains murky, it is becoming increasingly clear that he will not abide a “prosperous, democratic Ukraine on Russia’s border.”
And he said Mr. Putin is cashing in on the global standoff.
“What he does benefit from is the cycle of Russian action, escalating tensions, and the U.S. reaction, giving him a high-profile summit in an attempt to reduce tensions,” Mr. Miles said of the Russian leader.
“The meeting at Geneva in June 2021, their virtual meeting in December 2021, and now this January 2022 presidential meeting (and later lower-level gathering) should all have the White House concerned that it is playing into the Kremlin’s hand and rewarding Putin with prestige and status for his behavior,” he said.
Mr. Biden will continue to coordinate with European allies for “a common approach in response” to the Russian military build-up, the White House said.
The president also has consulted with the Bucharest Nine, a group of Eastern European nations, including Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, and Slovakia, according to the White House.
• Jeff Mordock contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.