Dec 10, 2021 - World

Inside Biden's call with Zelensky

Biden on the phone with Zelensky
President Biden speaks with Ukrainian President Zelensky as his top aides look on. Photo: Doug Mills-Pool/Getty Images

White House officials rejected speculation on Thursday that President Biden would pressure Ukraine to cede territory to Russian-backed separatists in order to deter Russian President Vladimir Putin from launching a large-scale invasion.

Driving the news: In a 90-minute phone call intended to brief Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on his discussions with Putin on Tuesday, Biden stressed that there would be "no decisions or discussions about Ukraine without Ukraine," according to a White House readout.

  • Biden "made very clear that one nation can't force another nation to change its borders" in his conversations with both Zelensky and Putin, according to a senior Biden administration official.
  • Biden also spoke on Thursday with the leaders of nine eastern flank NATO allies — Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Slovakia — in order to reassure them of the U.S. commitment to collective defense, the official said.

The big picture: With nearly 100,000 Russian troops massing on the Ukrainian border, the Biden administration has been engaged in a flurry of diplomacy to stave off a European conflict that officials fear could be the most devastating since World War II.

  • The U.S. and its European allies have threatened Russia with unprecedented economic sanctions if Putin moves forward with an invasion.
  • Biden officials have also said the U.S. is prepared to send additional military aid to Ukraine and increase its troop presence, capabilities and military exercises on NATO's eastern flank.
  • Putin has blamed those types of exercises for escalating tensions, and sought a legal guarantee in his call with Biden that NATO will not expand east.

Behind the scenes: Biden reassured Zelensky during their phone call that Russia has no veto right over Ukraine's possible accession to NATO, an adviser to Zelensky told Axios. Nonetheless, membership is unlikely any time soon.

  • Zelensky said that he is happy to enter into discussions related to implementing the Minsk Protocol, a vague 2014 agreement under which separatist regions in eastern Ukraine would receive special status and a degree of autonomy.
  • Zelensky stressed, however, that Russia must first implement a genuine ceasefire and Ukraine must be allowed to reassert its sovereignty before any kind of detailed negotiations can begin, the adviser said.

In response to the current military threat, Zelensky had two main requests for Biden:

  1. Impose sanctions now — rather than after a potential invasion — that could be rolled back if Russia de-escalates. Zelensky also said he would continue to push for sanctions on the Russia-to-Germany Nord Stream 2 pipeline, despite U.S. requests for Ukraine to tone down its rhetoric.
  2. Fulfill requests for large military equipment that Ukraine submitted based on U.S. intelligence about the Russian threat. This is particularly urgent, the adviser contended, given that the U.S. has warned of a possible invasion as soon as January.

What they're saying: Both the U.S. and Ukrainian sides characterized the call as open, warm and friendly.

  • Despite some "tactical disagreements," Zelensky's team considers Biden a trustworthy ally, the Zelensky adviser told Axios.
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