U.S. President Joe Biden warned Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday that Russia would face significant economic and military countermeasures should Mr. Putin order a wider invasion of Ukraine.
In a two-hour video summit prompted by Russia’s continuing military buildup around Ukraine’s borders, Mr. Biden told Mr. Putin that the U.S. was prepared to dramatically escalate economic sanctions against Moscow in the event of a new Russian incursion.
According to U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, Mr. Biden also warned the Russian leader that the U.S. would send more weapons to Ukraine to help the country defend itself in the event of an attack, while the NATO military alliance could respond by moving additional troops into front-line states such as Poland, Romania and the Baltic countries.
No new agreements were announced following the video call. Some 100,000 Russian troops remain within a short drive of Ukraine’s borders, backed by hundreds of tanks and warplanes, and new units continue to arrive. There was no sign that Mr. Biden had met any of Mr. Putin’s demands regarding the political future of Ukraine.
A Kremlin statement said Mr. Putin had asked during the call for “reliable, legally fixed guarantees” that would keep Ukraine from joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and prevent the alliance from deploying “offensive strike weapons systems in the states adjacent to Russia.” The Kremlin claims its military buildup is necessary because the Ukrainian government is planning to forcibly retake the breakaway Donbas region, which is under the control of a Moscow-backed militia. Ukraine has repeatedly dismissed the charge as propaganda.
NATO has deployed forward battle groups to Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia since Russia’s 2014 move to seize and annex the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine. Some 540 Canadian troops currently lead the NATO mission in Latvia.
Speaking to reporters after the video call, Mr. Sullivan floated a hypothetical scenario where NATO members on the alliance’s eastern flank requested additional support following a Russian invasion of Ukraine “and the United States will be looking to respond positively.”
Mr. Sullivan said the U.S. was still hoping to dissuade Mr. Putin from once more using military force against his neighbour. He said the White House did not believe that Mr. Putin had made a decision yet regarding whether to invade Ukraine. He said that Mr. Biden “told President Putin that there’s another option: de-escalation and diplomacy.”
Mr. Biden, he said, had proposed a dialogue that would cover “larger strategic issues, including our strategic concerns with Russia, and Russia’s strategic concerns.” He said the U.S. and Russia had always held direct talks, even during the Cold War, and could do so again, “provided that we are operating in a context of de-escalation, rather than escalation.”
The most significant development from the online summit appeared to be that the U.S. has now drawn an explicit connection between Mr. Putin’s next moves in Ukraine and the future of the US$11-billion Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline. Reuters, quoting an unnamed congressional aide, reported that the U.S. had reached an understanding with Germany to shut the controversial pipeline down in the event of a Russian invasion.
The pipeline, which is considered a pet project of Mr. Putin’s, would deliver Russian natural gas directly to Western Europe, eliminating Ukraine’s lucrative role as a transit country.
Construction, which began in 2016, was completed earlier this year, but the opening of the pipeline was delayed after Germany’s energy regulator suspended the approval process last month. The project had the support of Chancellor Angela Merkel, who leaves office this week after 16 years in power. The pipeline’s future is considered less certain under the incoming coalition government headed by Olaf Scholz of the centre-left Social Democrats.
Mr. Sullivan said the future of Nord Stream 2 had been “discussed thoroughly” during the video call. “If Vladimir Putin wants to see gas flowing through that pipeline, he might not want to take the risk of invading Ukraine,” he said.
Mr. Sullivan wouldn’t discuss details of other potential economic measures, but said the U.S. was willing to go much further than the sanctions it applied following Russia’s seizure of Crimea seven years ago. “Things we did not do in 2014 we are prepared to do now,” he said. One long-rumoured step could see Russia excluded from the SWIFT international banking system.
The Kremlin made no mention of Nord Stream 2 or SWIFT in its own statement on the call. According to the Kremlin’s readout, Mr. Putin told Mr. Biden that it was NATO, not Russia, that was raising tensions by “building up its military potential at our borders.”
The two leaders also discussed the 2015 Minsk Agreements, which were supposed to bring peace to Donbas, but which both Russia and Ukraine accuse the other of failing to implement. Mr. Sullivan said the U.S. would support a new ceasefire and “confidence building measures,” while the Kremlin readout said Mr. Putin had presented Mr. Biden with “specific examples” of how Ukraine was undermining the Minsk deal.
SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT
The Globe and Mail, December 7, 2021