The US and its allies are prepared to respond “decisively” should Russia invade Ukraine, President Joe Biden told his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin on Thursday amid mounting tensions at the border.
The telephone call between the leaders, which was arranged at Moscow’s request, marked the latest in a string of diplomatic efforts to defuse what has been described as a “moment of crisis” as Russia amasses roughly 100,000 troops on Ukraine’s eastern frontier.
It also preceded negotiations between Washington, Moscow and Nato member states planned for early January, when Russia intends to press for “security guarantees” to limit Nato’s expansion in Europe.
Although Russia’s leader has previously denied any plan to invade Ukraine, Putin last week refused to rule out a military option and has previously warned that he has “all kinds” of options if his demands are not met.
The US has said that several of Russia’s proposals were not up for negotiation, but it was open to discussing other Kremlin demands as it sought to deter Moscow from military action.
According to a senior US administration official, the tone of the call, which lasted just under an hour, was “serious and substantive”, with both leaders acknowledging the possibility of “meaningful progress” in some areas but also others where “agreement may be impossible”.
Russian presidential aide Yury Ushakov said the Kremlin was “satisfied” with the conversation, calling it “frank, substantive [and] specific”, according to Interfax.
Biden expressed his support for a diplomatic solution but warned of substantial costs and consequences should Russia proceed with its invasion of Ukraine.
“He made clear that the United States and its allies and partners will respond decisively if Russia further invades Ukraine,” Jen Psaki, White House press secretary, said in a statement after the call on Thursday. “President Biden reiterated that substantive progress in these dialogues can occur only in an environment of de-escalation rather than escalation.”
Biden emphasised to reporters on Friday that the US would impose “severe sanctions” should Putin continue to escalate tensions at the border, stressing that he underscored Russia cannot invade Ukraine. He also warned the US would increase its presence in Europe.
During the call on Thursday, Putin told Biden that sweeping sanctions would cause a “complete rupture” in relations between the two countries, Ushakov said, adding that it would be a “colossal mistake that could lead to the most serious consequences”.
The telephone call also comes amid controversy around Russia’s role in Europe’s soaring gas prices. Some European officials have accused Russian gas giant Gazprom of withholding additional volumes as it aims to launch the controversial Nord Stream 2 pipeline to Europe, whose approval by German regulators is on hold.
Gazprom insisted it was meeting all its contractual obligations to supply gas to Europe and said the record prices had killed demand for spot sales.
Russia felt a call was needed to clarify both leaders’ positions since they last spoke on December 7, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told journalists earlier on Thursday.
US and Russian officials are due to hold talks on January 10 followed by discussions between Russia and Nato on January 12 and a wider meeting between Moscow and representatives of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, expected on January 13.
Biden is set to speak with Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky on Sunday, according to a White House official, to discuss the ongoing situation at the border and “reaffirm” US support for the country’s “sovereignty and territorial integrity”.
Ahead of the January meetings, Russia said it was aiming to secure “legally binding security guarantees” from the US, said Maria Zakharova, foreign ministry spokesperson, namely, “guarantees that Nato will not pursue eastward expansion”.
Putin has described the threat of Nato’s expansion as an existential crisis for Russia and has made clear that he sees the situation in east Ukraine as unfinished business.
The country witnessed a Russia-backed separatist uprising in 2014 after Moscow annexed Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula. The conflict has claimed at least 14,000 lives.
Speaking ahead of the call on Thursday, Peskov said Russia was “set on dialogue” but added that the movement of its armed forces on its soil was the country’s prerogative.
A senior US administration official said: “We’re going to continue to monitor very closely the movement and build-up of Russian forces on the Ukraine border and prepare ourselves for whatever decision ultimately is made by the Russian president.”