(Bloomberg) — President Joe Biden warned Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday that the U.S. and its allies would respond with “strong” measures to an attack on Ukraine, as tensions surge over Moscow’s massing of troops on its border.
During a two-hour video call with Putin, Biden told the Russian leader that the U.S would send defensive materiel to Ukraine “above and beyond” what the U.S. already has sent if Russia invades, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan told reporters. Biden also threatened “strong economic measures” in case of attack.
Putin pushed back, blaming NATO for the increase in tensions through its “dangerous efforts” to expand ties with Kyiv and ratchet up its military potential on Russia’s borders, the Kremlin said in a statement that described the talks as “frank and businesslike.”
The Russian leader reiterated that Moscow wants binding security guarantees that the U.S.-led alliance won’t take in new members to the east or station offensive weapons close to Russia.
The U.S. has said Russia doesn’t have a vote in who joins NATO, but Sullivan said that the Biden administration and European allies are open to discussing Russia’s “strategic concerns.” That was an approach welcomed by Putin aide Yuri Ushakov in a briefing after the call.
The discussion between the two leaders followed a spike in tensions due to the buildup of more than 100,000 Russian troops on Ukraine’s border. U.S. intelligence suggests Russia has drafted a plan for a military offensive against Ukraine as soon as early 2022 involving as many as 175,000 personnel along with armor, artillery and other equipment.
Sullivan said the U.S. doesn’t believe that Putin has made a decision about attacking Ukraine. Russian officials have repeatedly rejected accusations that they are planning for war.
Biden called the leaders of France, Italy, the U.K. and Germany to brief them on the conversations. He’s expected to speak with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy on Thursday, Sullivan said.
The Biden-Putin call was the fourth direct conversation between the leaders this year, including an in-person summit in Geneva.
There were areas of common ground between Biden and Putin. Sullivan said the two leaders had a “productive” discussion on Iran. Russian and U.S. diplomats are engaged with other world powers to try to revive the 2015 Iran nuclear deal that former President Donald Trump withdrew from.
Both sides also raised the issue of their embassies in Washington and Moscow, which have suffered as the two sides restrict visa approvals in tit-for-tat reprisals. Sullivan said Biden is open to creating “functioning diplomatic missions in both countries,” without making specific commitments.
And while Sullivan and an earlier White House statement didn’t mention plans for a future in-person summit, the White House added that “the two presidents tasked their teams to follow up, and the U.S. will do so in close coordination with allies and partners.”
The Kremlin highlighted the constructive nature of the call, with Ushakov telling reporters that the two leaders joked, exchanged compliments and reminisced about the alliance between the U.S. and Soviet Union in World War II.
But asked if Putin had committed to pull back Russian troops massed near the border, Ushakov was dismissive, saying, “where should we withdraw our troops to, they’re on Russian territory?”
And in response to Biden’s threats of sanctions, Ushakov said “Our president said sanctions aren’t a new thing, they’ve been used for a while and they don’t give any positive effect either for the U.S. or Russia.”
Among the potential U.S. options, if Russia invades Ukraine, is pressing Germany to agree to stop the contested Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, according to documents seen by Bloomberg and people familiar with the plans. The completed but not-yet-functioning pipeline bypasses Ukraine, sending gas directly from Russia to Germany.
“If Vladimir Putin wants to see gas flow through that pipeline, he may not want to take the risk of invading Ukraine,” Sullivan said.
If there is an attack on Ukraine, U.S. and European allies are also weighing penalties that would target Russia’s largest banks and the country’s ability to convert rubles into foreign currencies, including the dollar.
In a briefing Tuesday on Capitol Hill, U.S. Under Secretary of State Victoria Nuland said that the U.S. is ready to isolate “Russia completely from the global financial system with all of the fallout that would entail.”
Yet the focus on mostly economic measures also underscored limits to how far the U.S., or NATO, is willing to go to defend Ukraine. And while Putin has plenty of reasons not to widen a conflict that began with the invasion and annexation of Crimea in 2014, keeping NATO from expanding into Ukraine is an existential issue for him.
Before the talks, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov declined to comment on the reports of planned sanctions, saying the “emotional statements” of recent days wouldn’t affect the talks.
“It’s obvious that if the presidents are having this conversation, they intend to discuss the issues and not drive things into a dead end,” Peskov said on a conference call with reporters Tuesday.