WASHINGTON/MOSCOW • President Joe Biden warned Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday the West would impose “strong economic and other measures” on Russia if it invades Ukraine, while Putin demanded guarantees NATO would not expand further eastward.
The two leaders held two hours of virtual talks on Ukraine and other disputes in a video call about U.S.-Russian relations, which have sunk to their lowest point since the end of the Cold War more than three decades ago.
The Kremlin, which said before Tuesday’s meeting that it did not expect a breakthrough, has denied harboring intention to attack Ukraine and has said its troop posture is defensive.
U.S. officials said before the video conference that Biden would tell Putin that Russia and its banks could be hit with the toughest sanctions yet if it attacks Ukraine.
Sanctions, which one source said could target Russia’s biggest banks and Moscow’s ability to convert roubles into dollars and other currencies, are designed to dissuade Putin from using tens of thousands of troops massed near the Ukrainian border to attack its southern neighbour.
“Things we did not do in 2014 we are prepared to do now,” U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said after the call, referring to Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine.
Biden was “direct and straightforward” with Putin, Sullivan said, telling the Russian leader that the United States and European allies would provide additional defensive capabilities to Ukraine, as well as beef up NATO allies in the region.
“There was a lot of give and take, there was no finger-wagging, but the president was crystal clear where the United States stands on all of these issues,” Sullivan said.
The Kremlin said Putin told Biden it was wrong to put all the responsibility on Russia’s shoulders for current tensions.
Moscow has voiced rising irritation over Western military aid to Ukraine, a fellow former Soviet republic that has tilted towards the West since a popular revolt toppled a pro-Russian president in 2014, and what it calls creeping NATO expansion.
The Kremlin said Putin told Biden he wanted reliable, legally binding guarantees against NATO expansion further eastward and complained about NATO attempts to “develop” Ukrainian territory.
Putin also called for guarantees that offensive strike systems would not be deployed in countries close to Russia, according to the Kremlin.
Both sides agreed to continue contacts and directed their teams to consult on questions about Ukraine.
Biden reiterated U.S. support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, the White House said, and called for de-escalation and diplomacy.
Russian TV footage showed Biden and Putin greeting each other in a friendly manner at the start of the virtual summit.
Both sides say they hope the two leaders can hold an in-person summit to discuss ties between the two nations, which have long-standing differences over Syria, U.S. economic sanctions and alleged Russian cyber attacks on U.S. companies.
A Ukraine official said after the talks Kiev was grateful to Biden for his “unwavering support.”
A U.S. Congress defense bill released after the talks included $300 million for Ukraine’s military.
Washington has accused Russia of massing troops near the border with Ukraine to intimidate an aspiring NATO member, suggesting it could be a repeat of Moscow’s 2014 playbook, when it seized the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea from Ukraine.
Moscow has questioned Ukrainian intentions and said it wants guarantees that Kyiv will not use force to try to retake territory lost in 2014 to Russia-backed separatists, a scenario Ukraine has ruled out.
For the Kremlin, the growing NATO embrace of neighboring Ukraine — and what it sees as the nightmare possibility of alliance missiles in Ukraine targeted against Russia — is a “red line” it will not allow to be crossed.