Biden Set for Putin Call to Ease Ukraine Standoff

The United States is demanding that Russia roll back more than 100,000 troops on Ukraine’s border.

By , Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter.
Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) shakes hands with U.S President Joe Biden during their meeting at the 'Villa la Grange' in Geneva, Switzerland in Geneva on June 16, 2021.
Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) shakes hands with U.S President Joe Biden during their meeting at the 'Villa la Grange' in Geneva, Switzerland in Geneva on June 16, 2021.
Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) shakes hands with U.S. President Joe Biden during their meeting in Geneva in Geneva on June 16. Mikhail Metzel/Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images

Putin’s War

U.S. President Joe Biden will hold another phone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday, a National Security Council spokesperson said, part of a whirlwind series of talks aimed at defusing Russia’s military buildup of more than 100,000 troops on Ukraine’s border.

The call, the second this month between the two leaders, was requested by Putin, a senior Biden administration official told reporters, but it was not immediately clear why the Russian leader asked for it. The United States and Russia will deal with the Ukraine standoff at three separate forums in January—including bilateral talks led by the U.S. State Department and a reconvening of the NATO-Russia Council, a forum where Moscow can air its grievances with the 30-nation alliance that has been mostly dormant since its 2002 inception.

“President Biden has always believed there is no substitute for direct leader-to-leader dialogue and engagement,” the senior administration official said of the upcoming call. But the talks are a two-way street, the official said, and “should proceed on the basis of reciprocity.”

U.S. President Joe Biden will hold another phone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday, a National Security Council spokesperson said, part of a whirlwind series of talks aimed at defusing Russia’s military buildup of more than 100,000 troops on Ukraine’s border.

The call, the second this month between the two leaders, was requested by Putin, a senior Biden administration official told reporters, but it was not immediately clear why the Russian leader asked for it. The United States and Russia will deal with the Ukraine standoff at three separate forums in January—including bilateral talks led by the U.S. State Department and a reconvening of the NATO-Russia Council, a forum where Moscow can air its grievances with the 30-nation alliance that has been mostly dormant since its 2002 inception.

“President Biden has always believed there is no substitute for direct leader-to-leader dialogue and engagement,” the senior administration official said of the upcoming call. But the talks are a two-way street, the official said, and “should proceed on the basis of reciprocity.”

Other than setting the table for the meetings next month, Biden will ask Putin to send Russian forces that have camped near the Ukrainian border for much of the year, such as parts of the 41st Combined Arms Army, back to their original training areas, the senior administration official said. Biden will also make clear that Ukraine will have a voice in the diplomatic discussions, the official said, even though it is not directly involved in most of them. But the United States is also prepared to discuss Russia’s demands, which have sought to curb NATO involvement in Eastern Europe, though the official did not elaborate on the exact U.S. negotiating position.

But even as the United States ramps up its diplomatic efforts to resolve the crisis between Ukraine and Russia, which has also included near-daily consultations between Washington and Kyiv, the Biden administration is also preparing a range of punitive measures if Moscow again invades. The United States has been coordinating with European allies for weeks on punishing multilateral sanctions, the official said, and would reinforce NATO’s eastern flank with additional U.S. troops and assets if Russian tanks roll farther into Ukraine.

Those moves would be sure to rankle the Kremlin. Putin has publicly demanded that NATO halt eastward expansion and that the United States end military exercises and deployments in the countries of the former Soviet Union—several of which are in NATO—an issue that has been debated within the Biden administration. Russia has long complained about U.S. missile defenses upsetting the balance of nuclear deterrence in Europe; Putin has hinted at it in recent public speeches, and it remains a possible point of tension in U.S. talks with Russia in January, which will be conducted by State Department arms control experts.

The United States has also promised to send Ukraine military equipment above and beyond previous lethal assistance, such as Javelin anti-tank missiles. But members of the U.S. Congress and aides have accused the administration of moving too slowly, including deliberating on another arms package to Kyiv that could be sent before a possible Russian invasion early next year.

Biden and Putin are not expected to participate directly in the Jan. 10 State Department-led meeting, which will include representatives from the Defense Department and National Security Council, or the Jan. 12 meeting of the NATO-Russia Council.

Ukraine, which has warned allies of Russia’s deployments of more tanks, artillery, armored vehicles, and loading vehicles for short-range ballistic missiles near the border, has asked to recommit to a 2020 cease-fire in the Donbass region and for Russia to take more steps away from the front lines to alleviate the security threat.

But as the diplomacy around the mostly frozen conflict heats up, some in Congress and experts have urged the Biden administration not to give into Russia’s demands that they see as based on a military crisis largely manufactured by Moscow.

“It was Russia that put around 175,000 troops on the border and threatened to invade again if its demands were not met,” said Mick Mulroy, a former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense and an ABC News analyst. “‘Do what I ask, or I will attack and occupy a sovereign country against all international norms.’”

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch

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