MOSCOW (AP) — Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Joe Biden agreed to appoint envoys to continue talks on security in Europe in light of escalating tensions over Russia’s massing tens of thousands of troops near its border with Ukraine, but the Kremlin said Wednesday it was unclear when the talks would happen.
Biden and Putin spoke for over two hours during a video call on Tuesday. The conversation seemed to have yielded little progress on Ukraine and the Russian troop buildup apart from the two leaders agreeing to name envoys to keep the discussion going.
“It’s impossible to tell at this point when exactly this would happen, but the presidents meant that it should happen rather promptly,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters in response to a question about the next steps for Washington and Moscow after the much-anticipated call between Putin and Biden.
Biden delivered a simple message to during his call with Putin: invade Ukraine again and face painful sanctions that will do resounding harm to your economy. The Russian president had his own blunt take, telling Biden that “the Russian troops are on their own territory, and they don’t threaten anyone,” according to Putin foreign policy adviser Yuri Ushakov, and told
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Wednesday that he would comment in detail on Thursday, after his own scheduled phone call with Biden. “Overall,…it was positive that the U.S. president spoke to the Russian president,” Zelenskyy said.
With no immediate breakthrough on the Ukraine question, the U.S. emphasized a need for diplomacy and de-escalation, while issuing stern threats to Russia about the high costs of a military incursion.
Biden “told President Putin directly that if Russia further invades Ukraine, the United States and our European allies would respond with strong economic measures,” U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said. He added that Biden said the U.S. would also “provide additional defensive material to the Ukrainians … and we would fortify our NATO allies on the eastern flank with additional capabilities in response to such an escalation.”
White House officials made clear that Biden is not interested in putting U.S. troops in harm’s way defending Ukraine. But Sullivan added that potential efforts to bolster regional allies could lead to additional deployments of U.S. troops to eastern European NATO allies.
A top U.S. envoy, Victoria Nuland, said a Russian invasion of Ukraine would also jeopardize a controversial pipeline between Russia and Germany known as Nord Stream 2. She told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday that if Russia invaded, “our expectation is that the pipeline will be suspended.”
Kremlin spokesman Peskov insisted Wednesday that Nord Stream 2 wasn’t even mentioned during the call between Putin and Biden.
Ushakov, Putin’s foreign policy adviser, dismissed the sanctions threat, telling reporters following the presidents’ video call: “Sanctions aren’t something new. They have been in place for a long time and will not have any effect.”
He described the presidents’ video conference as “candid and businesslike,” adding that they also exchanged occasional jokes.
The two leaders spoke on the 80th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, a defining moment that led to the U.S. entry in World War II. They commiserated about the cost of that conflict to their own families, Ushakov noted. Hours before the high-stakes call, Biden and first lady Jill Biden visited a war memorial in Washington to commemorate the anniversary.
In a brief snippet of the start of their meeting broadcasted by Russian state television, the two leaders offered friendly greetings to each other.
“I welcome you, Mr. President,” Putin said, with a Russian flag behind him and a video monitor showing Biden in front of him.
At the White House, Sullivan called it “a useful meeting,” allowing Biden to lay out in candid terms where America stands.
But as the U.S. and Russian presidents conferred, Ukraine grew only more anxious about the tens of thousands of Russian troops that have been deployed near its border.
Ukrainian officials said Russia had further escalated the crisis by sending tanks and snipers to war-torn eastern Ukraine to “provoke return fire” and lay a pretext for a potential invasion.
U.S. intelligence officials haven’t been able to independently verify that accusation, according to an administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive matter.
But the official said that the White House has directly raised concerns with the Russians about “resorting to their old playbook” by trying to provoke the Ukrainians.
Putin entered the call looking for guarantees from Biden that an expansion of the NATO military alliance would never include Ukraine, a demand that was a non-starter for the U.S. and its NATO allies.
The Kremlin, in a post-call statement, said NATO had been “making dangerous attempts to expand its presence on the Ukrainian territory and has been expanding its military potential near Russian borders.”
On another matter, Putin proposed to lift all mutual restrictions on diplomatic missions and help normalize other aspects of bilateral relations, according to the Kremlin. Sullivan said the leaders would direct their staff to continue negotiations on that.
The leader-to-leader conversation — Biden speaking from the White House Situation Room, Putin from his residence in Sochi — was one of the most important of Biden’s presidency and came at a perilous time.
U.S. intelligence officials have determined that Russia has moved 70,000 troops near the Ukraine border and has made preparations for a possible invasion early next year.
Sullivan said the U.S. believes that Putin hasn’t yet made a final decision to invade. Biden was vice president in 2014 when Russian troops strode into the Black Sea’s Crimean Peninsula and annexed it from Ukraine.
Aides say the Crimea episode — one of the darker moments for then President Barack Obama on the international stage — looms large as Biden looks at the smoldering current crisis.
Biden’s Republican opponents in Washington are framing this moment as a key test of the president’s leadership on the global stage. Biden vowed as a candidate to reassert American leadership after President Donald Trump’s emphasis on an “America First” foreign policy.
“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,” Sullivan told reporters after the leaders’ video call.
But there was at least one area where the two leaders found common ground during Tuesday’s call.
Sullivan said Biden and Putin had a “good discussion” on efforts to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power and called it an area where the two countries could cooperate.
In Russia, the talks were seen as acceptable overall, said Pavel Sharikov, senior research fellow at the Institute of Europe, Russian Academy of Sciences.
“The impression of the (call) is satisfactory. It was held in a pragmatic manner. There was an intense dialogue, an exchange of opinions,” Sharikov told The Associated Press.
Biden on Tuesday spoke for the second straight day with leaders of the United Kingdom, France, Germany and Italy to coordinate messaging and potential sanctions. Biden is also expected to speak with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on Thursday.
Aamer Madhani reported from Washington. Daniel Kozin in Moscow, and Robert Burns, Zeke Miller and Nomaan Merchant in Washington, contributed to this report.
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