Dec 7, 2021 - World

Biden huddles with European allies on Ukraine ahead of Putin call

Putin in the Kremlin. Photo: Grigory Sysoyev/Sputnik via Getty

President Biden will seek to convince Russia's Vladimir Putin in a phone call Tuesday that the price of invading Ukraine would be steeper than anything he's faced in the past.

Driving the news: Biden held a call on Ukraine this evening with the leaders of France, Germany, Italy and the U.K., while Secretary of State Tony Blinken called Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to offer America's "unwavering support."

State of play: The U.S. has been coordinating sanctions with European allies to be triggered if Putin proceeds.

  • A senior administration official told reporters Monday that the U.S. is also prepared to send additional military aid to Ukraine and increase its troop presence, capabilities and military exercises on NATO's "eastern flank" in response to a Russian incursion.

Yes, but: The U.S. has no intention of using military force to defend Ukraine, and Putin is "not afraid of sanctions at all," said Tatiana Stanovaya, founder of Moscow-based political analysis firm R.Politik.

  • The most drastic sanctions move reportedly under discussion would involve disconnecting Russia from the SWIFT international payments system. Russia’s central bank has already worked with Russian banks to prepare for that scenario, Stanovaya noted.

The big picture: Russia has deployed some 94,000 troops to various points near the border, and is "stepping up its planning for significant military action against Ukraine," the senior official briefed reporters ahead of the Biden-Putin conversation.

  • The White House has also warned that the Kremlin is waging a disinformation campaign against Ukraine, potentially as a pretext to blame Kyiv for any military clash.
  • "We do not know whether President Putin has made a decision about further military escalation in Ukraine. But we do know that he is putting in place the capacity to engage in such escalation should he decide to do so," the official said.

Flashback: This is the second time a looming crisis has triggered a high-profile tête-à-tête with Putin — the first being the Geneva summit in June. The administration had hoped to keep Russia on the back burner, avoid escalation, and focus on China.

The other side: Putin has set out red lines of his own ahead of the call, including the potential deployment by NATO of offensive missiles systems on Ukrainian territory.

  • He's also seeking a legally binding guarantee that NATO will not expand eastward, including to Ukraine.
  • In addition, Moscow has objected to NATO exercises near the Russian borders and increased cooperation between the alliance and Ukraine.
  • Zelensky today visited the front-lines of Ukraine’s simmering conflict with Russian-backed separatists and issued a statement saying Ukraine's military was prepared to “thwart any conquest plans of the enemy.”

Reality check: NATO appears unlikely to either invite Ukraine to join anytime soon or to guarantee it never will.

What to watch: "I think what Russia is engaged in is diplomacy by other means. ... 'They will not listen to my entreaties, they will not listen to my diplomatic notes, they will pay attention only to my troops movements,'" said Dmitri Trenin of Carnegie Moscow.

  • Trenin considers an invasion unlikely, not because of the sanctions threat but the high military cost.
  • However, Stanovaya expects Putin to issue Biden an "ultimatum." If the U.S. and its allies won't seriously engage over his desired security guarantees by early next year, "he will go to war," she said.
  • "I have never seen him in a position where he felt himself so strong, arrogant, self-confident and ready to go much further than we can imagine," she adds.
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