President Joe Biden and Russia’s Vladimir Putin squared off Tuesday over the massive buildup of Russian troops near the Ukrainian border, the U.S. president eager to use his video call with Putin to serve notice that Moscow will face economy-jarring sanctions if it invades neighboring Ukraine.
Just hours before the call got underway, Ukrainian officials charged Russia was continuing to escalate the crisis by sending tanks and snipers to war-torn eastern Ukraine to “provoke return fire.” Ukraine’s Defense Ministry alleged that Russia is holding “training camps under the leadership of regular servicemen of the Russian Armed Forces.” The Kremlin hasn’t commented on the allegations.
President Biden aimed to make clear that his administration stands ready to take actions against the Kremlin that would exact “a very real cost” on the Russian economy, according to White House officials. Putin, for his part, was expected to demand guarantees from Biden that the NATO military alliance will never expand to include Ukraine, which has long sought membership. That's a non-starter for the Americans and their NATO allies.
“We’ve consulted significantly with our allies and believe we have a path forward that would impose significant and severe harm on the Russian economy,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Monday in previewing the meeting. “You can call that a threat. You can call that a fact. You can call that preparation. You can call it whatever you want to call it.”
The leader-to-leader conversation — President Biden speaking from the Situation Room, Putin from his residence in Sochi — is expected to be one of the toughest of President Biden's term and comes at a perilous time. U.S. intelligence officials have determined that Russia has massed 70,000 troops near the Ukraine border and has made preparations for a possible invasion early next year.
Biden vowed as a candidate to reassert American leadership after President Donald Trump’s emphasis on an “America first” foreign policy. But President Biden has faced fierce criticism from Republicans who say that he’s been ineffective in slowing Iran’s march toward becoming a nuclear power and that the Biden administration has done too little to counter autocratic leaders like China’s Xi Jinping, Iran's Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Putin.
Ahead of the Putin call, President Biden on Monday spoke with leaders of the United Kingdom, France, Germany and Italy to coordinate messaging and potential sanctions.
The White House said in a statement that the leaders called on Russia to “de-escalate tensions” and agreed that diplomacy "is the only way forward to resolve the conflict.”
Additional reporting by The Associated Press.