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Biden and Putin meeting in Geneva in June. Photo: Mikhail Metzel\TASS via Getty Images

Russian President Vladimir Putin is demanding a legally binding guarantee that NATO will not expand east — including to Ukraine — and plans to raise the issue in an upcoming phone call with President Biden, according to the Kremlin.

Why it matters: Russia has massed more than 94,000 troops on the border with Ukraine and could be preparing for a large-scale invasion at the end of January, Ukraine's defense minister said Friday.

What they're saying: Biden told reporters Friday that his top national security officials are "putting together what I believe will be the most comprehensive and meaningful set of initiatives to make it very, very difficult for Mr. Putin to go ahead and do what people are worried he may do."

Driving the news: Putin has blamed the heightened tensions on increased NATO activity near Russia's borders, including Western support for Ukrainian government forces fighting Russian-backed separatists in the Donbas region.

  • Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Stockholm on Thursday to call for de-escalation.
  • He warned that the U.S. and its allies would "impose severe costs and consequences" — including unprecedented economic sanctions — if Russia took further action.
  • Lavrov shot back that NATO was "playing with fire" with its exercises near Russian borders and that Moscow was prepared to take "retaliatory measures to correct the military-strategic balance."

The big picture: NATO promised Ukraine membership in the alliance in 2008, but has declined to set out a timeline due to concerns about corruption and the implications of integrating a country that has already been invaded by Russia.

  • NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg condemned the Kremlin on Wednesday for suggesting that support for a sovereign country like Ukraine is a "provocation."
  • "It's only Ukraine and 30 NATO allies that decide when Ukraine is ready to join NATO," Stoltenberg said. "Russia has no veto, Russia has no say, and Russia has no right to establish a sphere of influence to try to control their neighbors."

What to watch: A top foreign policy aide to Putin said Friday that the U.S. and Russia were finalizing the date for a video call with Biden.

  • In addition to guarantees against NATO's eastward expansion, Putin will seek a ban on "weapons systems that would threaten us on the territories of neighboring countries, including Ukraine," the aide said.
  • It will be the second time Biden has spoken to Putin since June, when the two leaders met in Geneva as part of Biden's push for a more "stable" and "predictable" relationship with Russia.

Go deeper

Jan 14, 2022 - World

U.S. accuses Russia of preparing "false flag" operation to attack Ukraine

Photo: Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images

The U.S. claims to have information indicating that Russia has "already prepositioned a group of operatives to conduct a false-flag operation in eastern Ukraine," laying the groundwork for a potential pretext to invade, according to a U.S. official.

Why it matters: Diplomatic talks between the U.S., its European allies and Russia failed to produce a breakthrough this week, raising fears that Moscow will invade Ukraine and unleash a devastating new war.

Updated Jan 14, 2022 - World

U.S. confirms Russia arrested REvil ransomware hackers

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaking in Moscow in June 2021. Photo: Alexei Nikolsky/TASS via Getty Images

Russia's security agency said Friday it arrested members of the Russia-based cyber gang REvil that was responsible for multiple massive ransomware attacks against U.S. companies last year.

The latest: A senior administration official confirmed on Friday afternoon that Russia informed the U.S. that it arrested the alleged hackers, including an individual responsible for the cyberattack that crippled the Colonial Pipeline.

Updated 1 hour ago - Politics & Policy

British national named in Colleyville synagogue standoff

A law enforcement vehicle sits near the Congregation Beth Israel synagogue on Jan. 16. Photo: Brandon Bell/Getty Images

British national Malik Faisal Akram took four people hostage at a Texas synagogue outside Fort Worth on Saturday, the FBI said in a statement.

State of play: Authorities had initially declined to release the name of the 44-year-old suspect or identify the hostages, all adults, though police chief Michael Miller confirmed that one of those held was Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker, who leads the congregation.