Top Biden administration officials said Thursday they are holding out hope that Russian President Vladimir Putin will embrace a legacy of peace and end a long-running military standoff along the Ukrainian border, even as top aides to the Russian leader said they see “little ground for optimism” with the threat of war looming over Eastern Europe.
Moscow issued the gloomy rhetoric a day after the U.S. and NATO formally rejected Russian demands that the Western military alliance halt expansion, rule out Ukraine as a possible member, and limit military exercises and weapons deployments in former Soviet republics.
That written rejection may have marked a turning point in the crisis. It made abundantly clear that the two former Cold War foes are miles apart on key points with seemingly little room to negotiate. Still, Moscow and Washington said they see potential areas of cooperation on more narrow issues, such as new arms control agreements. Analysts said the resolution may come down to what Russian President Vladimir Putin, having initiated the clash, is willing to accept short of his stated ultimatums.
With more than 100,000 Russian troops poised to invade Ukraine if given the order, Mr. Putin is reviewing the American response to his demands. The bluster from other Kremlin officials matters little in the end. The Russian president will be the sole decision-maker on whether Russia pursues a fresh round of diplomacy with the U.S. and Europe or mounts an attack on Ukraine.
As part of a pledge not to negotiate Ukraine’s future without consulting Kyiv, President Biden spoke again by phone with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on Thursday, a day after the U.S. and NATO delivered their written replies to the Kremlin’s demands. Mr. Biden this week ordered 8,500 U.S. troops to be put on “high alert” status in case they need to deploy to Eastern Europe, where Russia has assembled more than 100,000 troops and heavy weaponry close by the tense border.
Mr. Zelenskyy said in a Twitter post that he and Mr. Biden had a “long conversation” about efforts to deescalate the crisis and U.S. military and financial support for Kyiv. Despite strong rhetorical support, Mr. Biden has repeatedly said U.S. troops will not be sent to Ukraine if a shooting war breaks out.
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State Department officials went so far Thursday as to appeal to Mr. Putin’s legacy. They suggested that his decisions in the coming days will dictate how he is viewed by history.
“This is a moment for diplomacy and for cool heads to prevail. That’s what we want,” said Victoria Nuland, undersecretary of state for political affairs. “We hope [Mr. Putin] will see here a real opportunity for a legacy of security and arms control rather than a legacy of war,” she told reporters at the State Department.
Ms. Nuland stressed that the U.S. and its NATO allies remain prepared to impose “swift and severe” consequences on Russia in the form of economic sanctions and other punishments. Washington has tried to project a unified front with its European allies on sanctions, but questions are growing about whether all NATO members, especially Germany, are on the same page. The White House also announced that German Chancellor Olaf Scholz would visit Washington on Feb. 7 for his first face-to-face meeting with Mr. Biden since the crisis broke out.
Mr. Putin’s top deputies said they saw no clear diplomatic path forward in light of the replies from Washington and Brussels. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said there is “little ground for optimism.” Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said the U.S. document issued Wednesday makes some offers on secondary issues but “contains no positive response on the main issue” regarding Russia’s security demands in the region.
“We cannot say that our thoughts have been taken into account or that a willingness has been shown to take our concerns into account,” Mr. Peskov told reporters. He said Russia would take its time formulating a reply.
“We won’t rush with our assessments,” he said.
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Mr. Putin did not comment on the Western responses. He is scheduled to have a phone conversation Friday with French President Emmanuel Macron.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken made clear this week that the U.S. answer affirmed that there would be no change to “core principles” such as NATO’s open-door policy for emerging Eastern European democracies. That message was conveyed directly to the Kremlin in a letter from U.S. Ambassador John Sullivan. The U.S. and NATO also shot down the idea that they would halt troop deployments to NATO states in Eastern Europe on the Russian border.
That position creates a wide gulf between the West and Russia. Kremlin officials stressed that they believe the true security threat in the region comes from the U.S. and its allies.
“It is clear that the military tensions in Europe will reduce if NATO withdraws its forces from Eastern European states. So this is what we call for, this is one of the key points of our proposals for NATO on guarantees of security,” said Russian Foreign Ministry deputy spokesman Alexey Zaytsev, according to Russia’s official Tass news agency.
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said the Russians were bulking up forces near Ukraine, including a deployment of troops in neighboring Belarus purportedly engaged in a training exercise.
“We continue to see, including in the last 24 hours, more accumulation of credible combat forces arrayed by the Russians” in western Russia and in Belarus, Mr. Kirby said in a Pentagon briefing.
U.S. officials said they coordinated closely with Ukraine and NATO allies before issuing responses. Ukrainian officials said they remain in lockstep with the West.
“This is why we speak about economic sanctions. This is why we speak about the consolidated position of all of us: so that President Putin sees that there are no weak links in our defensive chain,” Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said Thursday during a visit to Denmark.
Meanwhile, foreign policy analysts warn that Russia may have a few political tricks up its sleeve as the crisis unfolds. There is a growing movement in Moscow to formally recognize the independence of the Donetsk People’s Republic and other self-declared pro-Russian enclaves in eastern Ukraine. Those areas have been home to years of fighting between the Ukrainian military and pro-Russian separatists with the backing of Moscow.
Specialists say formal recognition of those areas could offer Mr. Putin a way to further chip away at Ukraine’s sovereignty, just as he did with the military annexation of Crimea in 2014. It would also represent an escalation of the crisis through nonmilitary means, putting the U.S. and NATO on the spot on how to respond.
“If Russia would want to allow more time for negotiations to play out, while also escalating pressure to compel the West to accept at least some of its core positions, then recognition of the statelets could be considered in the Kremlin as an appropriate next step,” said Andrew Lohsen, a fellow in the Europe, Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“Should Ukraine and the West make substantial concessions at that stage, then Putin would be able to proclaim a victory in the current standoff and draw down his forces rather than risk a spiraling escalation with unpredictable outcomes,” he wrote in an analysis this week.
The State Department’s Ms. Nuland said the Russians’ acknowledgment that they were still studying the U.S. response was a small source of hope.
“The most important thing we heard from Moscow today is that the documents are with President Putin, that he is studying them,” Ms. Nuland said. “From where we’re standing, the ball is in their court, but we are ready for talks … whenever they are ready.”
• This article is based in part on wire service reports.