- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 7, 2021

There were some blunt words but no “finger-wagging” as President Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin talked face-to-face Tuesday about avoiding a war over Ukraine.

U.S. officials said Mr. Biden, in the private video link for more than two hours, told Mr. Putin that the U.S. and the West would respond far more harshly this time to a military incursion into Ukraine than they did when Mr. Putin effectively seized Crimea from Ukraine seven years ago.

Mr. Biden told Mr. Putin “directly that if Russia further invades Ukraine, the United States and our European allies would respond with strong economic measures,” Jake Sullivan, the president’s national security adviser, told reporters after the call.

He said Mr. Biden was “straight and direct” about growing concerns in Washington and Europe over Moscow’s intentions.

“There was a lot of give and take, there was no finger-wagging. But the president was crystal clear about where the United States stands,” Mr. Sullivan said.

Mr. Sullivan declined to specify what the U.S. might do but added, “I will look you in the eye and tell you, as President Biden looked President Putin in the eye and told him today, that things we did not do in 2014, we are prepared to do now.”

SEE ALSO: Biden says he’s not planning to deploy U.S. troops to Ukraine to unilaterally confront Russia

It was unclear from the public readouts whether the two leaders made much progress behind closed doors. 

Russian government officials said Mr. Putin, in the “frank and businesslike” discussions, again blamed Ukraine and NATO for escalating tensions in the region. 

Mr. Putin repeated demands for “reliable and firm legal guarantees” that NATO neither add Ukraine or other countries bordering Russia nor supply Kyiv with more offensive weapons in the struggle against pro-Russian separatists waging a civil war in Ukraine’s eastern regions.

Mr. Biden last week rejected the idea of Russian security “red lines.” Mr. Sullivan said Tuesday that the president made “no such commitments or concessions.”

The Russian readout of the meeting was far more neutral. It noted that the two leaders also discussed the security situation in Afghanistan, Iran and ways to end the tit-for-tat expulsions of diplomatic personnel. 

Mr. Biden sat at a table in the White House Situation Room. Mr. Putin was at his residence in the Black Sea resort of Sochi after returning from a visit to India.

The White House closed the summit to the U.S. press, but the Kremlin released photos and a video clip of the meeting.

“Greetings, Mr. President,” Mr. Putin said at the start of the call, according to the clip released by the Kremlin. 

“Good to see you again,” Mr. Biden responded. “Unfortunately, last time we didn’t get to see one another at the [October Group of 20 meeting in Rome]. I am hoping next time we do it in person.”

In a sign of the seriousness of the talks to the U.S. side, Mr. Biden conferred with top leaders in Western Europe on Monday and called them again Tuesday to discuss how the talks went and what steps to take.  

Mr. Biden will brief Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on Thursday, U.S. officials said.

Hitting a low

NATO-Russian relations have hit what some analysts call a post-Cold War low in recent months.

The Western military alliance accuses Mr. Putin of orchestrating a pressure campaign on Ukraine featuring a significant buildup of troops and military equipment near the Ukrainian border. There have also been repeated near-clashes of Russian and NATO ships and planes from the Baltic states to the Black Sea.

Ukrainian officials have complained loudly about the Kremlin’s intimidation tactics and what Kyiv says is a disinformation campaign similar to the one in the run-up to the 2014 seizure of Crimea. Western leaders have promised to support Ukraine but have stopped far short of measures such as offering NATO membership and the promise to come to its aid militarily if attacked.

Indeed, the Biden administration has talked only of painful economic sanctions against Moscow should a war break out. The penalties reportedly discussed include sanctions on members of Mr. Putin’s inner circle and on Russian banks trying to access the international financial system.

The meeting Tuesday was arranged in response to rising tensions and deteriorating relations in the months since Mr. Biden and Mr. Putin met for their only in-person talks, in Geneva in July. U.S. officials at the time said they thought the talks helped clear the air and laid the groundwork for a “stable, predictable” relationship with Russia.

But diplomatic clashes over Belarus and, especially, Ukraine have soured relations. Each side accuses the other of a military intimidation campaign along Russia’s western border. 

U.S. and NATO officials have been particularly alarmed at extensive military exercises and the positioning of Russian troops and military hardware close to the Ukrainian border. Moscow has been backing a deadly, seven-year pro-Russian separatist movement battling the central government in Kyiv.

Red lines

U.S. intelligence analysts reportedly have concluded that the Russian buildup could set the stage for a military incursion into Ukraine early next year. More than 94,000 troops, armored vehicles and electronic warfare systems have been deployed in the largest buildup of Russian forces on the border since Moscow invaded and annexed Crimea from Ukraine.

U.S. officials say Russia is using the same disinformation tactics as it did before the Crimea seizure as a way to justify possible military action against Ukraine.

The Kremlin says it has the right to position troops within its border, and Mr. Putin has repeatedly complained that the U.S. and its allies have ignored his security “red lines” by installing missile defense systems in Poland and Romania, arming Ukraine, and refusing to rule out potential NATO membership for former Soviet republics such as Ukraine and Georgia.

Washington and its allies blame Russia for rising tensions and call Mr. Putin’s demands unreasonable, given the pressure countries like Ukraine are facing.

“I don’t accept anyone’s red line,” Mr. Biden told reporters on Friday.

Mr. Zelenskyy’s government has voiced increasing alarm over what it calls Russian aggression, appealing to the U.S. and Europe for clear signs of support against its far larger neighbor.

“If I can advise President Biden, I would like him to articulate to Mr. Putin that no red lines from the Kremlin side should be here,” Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov told CNN late Monday. “The red line is here in Ukraine, and the civilized world will react without hesitation.”

In striking language, Mr. Reznikov predicted a “bloody massacre” for Russian forces if Mr. Putin does invade. 

“The Russian guys also will come back in the coffins,” he told CNN.

Creating pretexts for war

Just hours before Tuesday’s talks, Ukrainian officials said Russia was sending tanks and snipers to war-torn eastern Ukraine to “provoke return fire” and create a pretext to escalate the fight. The Ukrainian Defense Ministry said Russia has “training camps under the leadership of regular servicemen of the Russian Armed Forces,” The Associated Press reported.

Oleksandr Danylyuk, a former top adviser in the Defense Ministry, expressed the feelings of many in Kyiv when he said Mr. Biden and other Western leaders cannot give in to Mr. Putin’s threats.

In an op-ed in the defense publication Military Times, he wrote this week that “even the smallest concessions that can be made to Putin in the current situation will only preserve opportunities for Russia to continue its aggressive wars and blackmail … to achieve the desired political results.”

Mr. Biden faced political blowback at home, where he is under pressure to take an even stronger stand against Mr. Putin and Russia. Republicans and even some Democrats have faulted the administration for giving up the effort to block Russia’s Nord Stream 2 pipeline into Germany. Critics say it will increase Russia’s leverage over Europe while bypassing a pipeline that runs through Ukraine.

“Biden’s weak leadership on the international stage has emboldened our enemies and shaken our allies’ trust,” Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel said in a statement issued hours after the meeting concluded.

“Today’s meeting underscores how Biden’s weak global leadership, Afghanistan disaster, and failure at our border is emblematic of his ‘America last’ agenda.”

The Reuters news agency reported Tuesday that one sanction discussed with Germany would shut down the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project if Russia invades Ukraine.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

• Jeff Mordock can be reached at jmordock@washingtontimes.com.

• David R. Sands can be reached at dsands@washingtontimes.com.

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