Biden tries to tamp down tensions with Putin call
President Biden issued an explicit warning to Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday to not invade Ukraine as Washington seeks to reduce tensions between Moscow and Kyiv.
U.S. officials said Biden told Putin that Russia would suffer economic consequences if it launched a military incursion into Ukraine, while offering the option to de-escalate through diplomatic channels with the United States and other European countries.
White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan said Biden told Putin the U.S. would send additional defensive aid to Ukraine and provide more capabilities and potentially more U.S. forces to NATO’s eastern flank if Putin invaded Ukraine.
“There was a lot of give and take, there was no finger-wagging, but the president was crystal clear about where the United States stands on all of these issues,” Sullivan said.
The rising tensions in Eastern Europe represent the latest major foreign policy challenge for Biden, whose standing domestically and internationally has taken a hit following the messy withdrawal from the two-decade conflict in Afghanistan.
Lawmakers on Capitol Hill have emphasized united support for Ukraine in the face of Russian aggression, an area of rare bipartisanship, though some Republicans have tried to cast Biden as weak.
Sen. James Risch (R-Idaho), ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, vowed Tuesday that a Russian offensive against Ukraine would trigger robust economic sanctions from Congress.
“Putin needs to know that the United States, across party lines, is unified in our repudiation of his actions and are prepared to respond,” said Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.)
It’s unclear whether Putin will back down at Biden’s urging, and officials did not give any assurances or predictions that the Russian president would do so.
Russia has amassed tens of thousands of troops at the Ukrainian border, with Moscow’s recent behavior drawing comparisons to its actions leading up to the 2014 invasion of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula.
“I think we’ll see with the actual developments in the days and weeks ahead,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said during a Wall Street Journal event Tuesday afternoon. “We hope to see Russia take no additional aggressive steps toward Ukraine.”
Russia has demanded a legally binding agreement that NATO not expand eastward to include Ukraine, a prospect to which U.S. and European officials have been cool.
The Kremlin readout of Tuesday’s video call between the two leaders said Putin alleged that NATO is “making dangerous attempts to conquer Ukrainian territory and is building up its military potential at our borders.”
The White House thus far has refused to detail the economic sanctions it would impose on Russia if it moved forward with an invasion, instead reserving those specifics for private conversations with the Russians.
Leading up to Tuesday’s call, experts said it was critical that Biden explicitly lay out the consequences of a Russian invasion of Ukraine in order to ward off a military crisis.
One of the options believed to be on the table is removing Russia from the SWIFT banking system, a significant action that would severely penalize Russia but also cause disruption to other European allies.
Another issue is the Russian-controlled Nord Stream 2 pipeline — which was constructed to deliver natural gas from Russia directly to Germany. The pipeline requires certification by the German government before it becomes operational, and administration officials and lawmakers from both parties say a Russian invasion of Ukraine would be grounds to withhold the certification.
Still, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland maintained that the pipeline does not factor into Putin’s thinking on whether to invade Ukraine.
“I believe that President Putin will make his decisions with regard to Ukraine regardless of what happens to Nord Stream 2. I believe he has an aspiration to have control of Ukraine,” she told senators.
Asked whether the Biden administration had urged Germany to threaten to pull support for the pipeline, Sullivan said only that officials have had “intensive discussions with both the outgoing and incoming German governments on the issue of Nord Stream 2 in the context of a potential invasion.”
Sullivan added that “it is an object of great priority for the Biden administration.”
The U.S. has long opposed the pipeline, but the Biden administration has held off on leveraging the most punitive sanctions as part of an agreement reached in July with Germany, which supports the pipeline.
As part of the agreement, Germany agreed to take specific steps — including leveraging sanctions — if Russia was found to be committing aggressive acts against Ukraine.
“The Germans have indicated themselves that if there’s an invasion [of Ukraine], Nord Stream 2 is closed,” Risch told reporters.
Biden has faced doubts about his foreign policy prowess following the Afghanistan withdrawal, and the White House has made a point to coordinate its actions on Ukraine with European allies.
Over the course of two days, Biden held two calls with the leaders of France, Germany, Italy and the U.K. to discuss Russian aggression toward Ukraine.
Biden is also slated to speak with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Thursday. Blinken on Monday spoke with Zelensky and reiterated the United States’ “unwavering support for Ukraine’s sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity in the face of Russian aggression,” according to a readout.
Risch emphasized that if Moscow launched an invasion, it would be answered with support for punishing sanctions.
“Not the usual kinds of sanctions, but, as far as we can possibly go with sanctions — denying the entire international banking system to the Russians, and things like that are going to be very devastating to the Russians,” he told reporters.
Alex Gangitano contributed.