In a one-on-one pre-New Year phone call, Vladimir Putin demanded assurances that NATO won’t accept Ukraine as a member ahead of US-Russia talks scheduled in Geneva for next month.
Putin has massed up to 175,000 Russian troops on Ukraine’s borders, spurring fears that Moscow may invade.
Biden recently indicated a willingness to assuage Putin — sparking concern in Eastern Europe that Putin may have strategically created a crisis to gain concessions.
Ukraine is not currently a member of NATO, and Biden has not taken a firm position on Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s request to join the military alliance.
Biden said this month that he won’t send US troops to Ukraine to deter Russia, but he would impose harsh economic sanctions in response to an invasion.
When Biden was vice president in 2014, Russia invaded and annexed the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine following a disputed referendum. The important port and resort region was considered part of Russia within the Soviet Union prior to 1954.
Prior to this seeming impromptu phone call between the two leaders, Biden met virtually with Putin earlier this month and warned him that the US and its European allies would take “strong economic measures” if Russia attacked Ukraine.
US and Russian diplomats will meet on Jan. 10 in Geneva to discuss tensions over Ukraine. Putin and Biden are not expected to attend.
Tensions in Ukraine at the border and within the country are high. Putin’s government is accused of propping up a pair of pro-Russia breakaway states in eastern Ukraine’s coal-rich Donbas region, and the Russian leader claimed last week that Ukraine is preparing for military action against those separatist states.
“There is an impression that, maybe, they are preparing for the third military operation [in Ukraine] and give us a fair warning: do not intervene, do not protect these people but if you do intervene and protect them, there will be new sanctions,” Putin said. “Perhaps, we should prepare for that.”
Putin has also pressed the US and NATO to promise that they will not deploy troops or send missile systems to Ukraine, and he’s complained about NATO’s eastward expansion to include countries once under Russian and Soviet influence.
A senior Biden administration official said that Biden’s aim for the Dec. 30 call was to defuse tensions with Putin.
Whether or not that was accomplished remains to be seen.