Biden, Putin hold call as tensions mount over Ukraine crisis

The White House said ahead of the 50-minute call that Biden would tell Putin that a diplomatic path remains open



In this image provided by The White House, President Joe Biden speaks with Russian President Vladimir Putin on the phone from his private residence in Wilmington. — AP
In this image provided by The White House, President Joe Biden speaks with Russian President Vladimir Putin on the phone from his private residence in Wilmington. — AP

By AP

Published: Fri 31 Dec 2021, 2:24 AM

Presidents Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin spoke Thursday amid growing alarm over Russia’s troop buildup near Ukraine, a simmering crisis that has become further complicated in recent days as the Kremlin has stepped up its calls for security guarantees and test fired hypersonic missiles to underscore its demands.

Putin requested the call, the second between the leaders this month, ahead of scheduled talks between senior US and Russian officials set for January 10 in Geneva.

White House officials said that the call began at 3.35pm EST and concluded 50 minutes later, after midnight in Moscow. There was no immediate readout from either side.

Russia has made clear it wants a written commitment that Ukraine will never be allowed to join NATO and that the alliance’s military equipment will not be positioned in former Soviet states, demands that the Biden administration has made clear are non-starters.

The White House said ahead of the call that Biden would tell Putin that a diplomatic path remains open even as the Russians have moved an estimated 100,000 troops toward Ukraine and Kremlin officials have turned up the volume on its demands for new guarantees from the US and NATO.

Those demands are to be discussed during the talks in Geneva, but it remains unclear what, if anything, Biden would be willing to offer Putin in exchange for defusing the crisis.

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Draft security documents Moscow submitted demand that NATO deny membership to Ukraine and other former Soviet countries and roll back its military deployments in Central and Eastern Europe.

The US and its allies have refused to offer Russia the kind of guarantees on Ukraine that Putin wants, citing NATO’s principle that membership is open to any qualifying country. They agreed, however, to hold talks with Russia to discuss its concerns.

The security proposal by Moscow has raised the question of whether Putin is making unrealistic demands in the expectation of a Western rejection that would give him a pretext to invade.

Steven Pifer, a career foreign service officer who served as US ambassador to Ukraine in the Clinton administration, said the Biden administration could engage on some elements of Russia’s draft document if Moscow is serious about talks.

Biden planned to tell Putin that for there to be “real progress” in the talks they must be conducted in “a context of de-escalation rather than escalation,” according to a senior administration official who briefed reporters before the call. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity.

The call was set up on Putin’s initiative, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said Thursday.

“The goal of the conversation is clear — to continue discussing the issues that were on the agenda during the recent conversation via video conference,” Peskov told reporters. That Dec. 7 call focused on the Russian troop movements, which have unsettled Ukraine and other European allies, as well as Moscow’s demand for security guarantees.

Peskov noted that since that call, Moscow submitted its security proposals to US and European officials and now “from our point of view, from the point of view of President Putin, the need has arisen for another telephone conversation, which would preface the upcoming talks”.

Biden and Putin, who met in Geneva in June to discuss an array of tensions in the US-Russia relationship, are not expected to take part in the January talks.

As Biden prepared for the talks with Putin, the administration also sought to highlight the commitment to Ukraine and drive home that Washington is committed to the “principle of nothing about you without you” in shaping policy that affects European allies.

The two leaders are also expected during Thursday’s call to discuss efforts to persuade Iran to return to the 2015 nuclear accord, which was effectively scrapped by the Trump administration.

Biden, who is spending the week in his home state of Delaware, spoke to Putin from his home near Wilmington. The White House distributed a photo of the president speaking to the Russian leader from a desk lined with family photos.

Ahead of the call, Putin sent a telegram to Biden with New Year’s and Christmas wishes, which was posted on the Kremlin site on Thursday, along with other holiday messages to world leaders.

“I am convinced that in the development of our agreements reached during the June summit in Geneva and subsequent contacts that we can move forward and establish an effective Russian-American dialogue based on mutual respect and in consideration of each other’s national interests,” Putin wrote.


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