Biden, Putin to talk Thursday amid ongoing Ukraine tensions

Jenny Leonard
Bloomberg News

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden plans to talk by phone with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday as the U.S. and its allies raise alarm about Russia’s troop buildup on the Ukraine border.

The leaders will “discuss a range of topics, including upcoming diplomatic engagements with Russia,” National Security Council spokeswoman Emily Horne said in a statement.

The talks follow a Dec. 7 Biden-Putin telephone exchange in which the American president affirmed a commitment to Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and warned that Russian aggression would be met with unprecedented economic penalties.

The U.S. has told European allies that the massive Russian military presence near Ukraine might be preparation for an invasion as early as next month. The U.S. remains gravely concerned about the buildup, a senior Biden administration official said Wednesday, and is prepared to provide Ukraine with additional assistance should Russia invade.

Russia denies plans for a military operation but has warned NATO against crossing “red lines” by stationing offensive weapons in Ukraine.

President Joe Biden, left, meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin in June.

Thursday’s call was requested by Russia, according to the U.S. official, who deferred to the Russians on the reason for the request. The U.S. official said a successful conversation can only take place if there’s de-escalation at the Ukraine border. But Biden agreed to take part because because he believes in leader-to-leader diplomacy and that the situation demands discussions between the two presidents, the official said.

The call is scheduled at 3:30 p.m. Washington time, said another American official.

The talks will go beyond Ukraine to include other issues, including arms control, the first official said.

Dmitry Peskov, a Kremlin spokesman, confirmed that the call would take place without providing further details, or that his government had initiated it.

Separately, Russia will start discussions with the U.S. on its demands for guarantees of an end to NATO’s eastward expansion before a proposed Jan. 12 meeting between the military alliance and Moscow, according to Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

“We will hold the main round of negotiations with the U.S. which will take place immediately after the end of the New Year holidays,” Lavrov said in a YouTube interview Monday with the Soloviev Live channel.

He said his country isn’t presenting the U.S. with any “ultimatums,” but also won’t accept “endless” talks on its demands for legally binding pledges that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization will halt further expansion and withdraw forces to the positions they held in 1997.

The U.S. and its allies have threatened Moscow with harsh economic reprisals if its troops march into Ukraine, but those warnings show that the West, at this point, is only willing to go so far.

“Putin sees Biden as a reasonable interlocutor who is ready to listen,” said Fyodor Lukyanov, head of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, which advises the Kremlin. “That’s why he wants to speak to him again on these issues to understand what can be agreed realistically.”

State Department spokesman Ned Price repeated on Tuesday what’s becoming the standard American response to concern that the Biden administration may cut its own deal with Russia while shortchanging the concerns of Ukraine and the European allies. “The principle is inviolable — nothing about them without them,” he said.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke with Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy Wednesday about “efforts to peacefully resolve the conflict in eastern Ukraine and upcoming diplomatic engagements with Russia,” the State Department said in a statement.

Later, Blinken said in a tweet that he also spoke with his counterparts from the U.K., France and Germany and that they “stand united in our commitment to impose massive consequences and severe costs for further aggression” against Ukraine.