US president Joe Biden and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin have made little progress after two hours of talks on the escalating crisis after Russia massed of tens of thousands of troops near its border with Ukraine.
Mr Biden delivered a simple message during Tuesday’s video call with Mr Putin: invade Ukraine again and face painful sanctions that will cause resounding harm to your economy.
Mr Putin made his own blunt statement, according to his foreign adviser Yuri Ushakov, telling the US president that “the Russian troops are on their own territory, and they don’t threaten anyone”.
With no immediate breakthrough to ease tensions on the Ukraine question, the US emphasised a need for diplomacy and de-escalation, while issuing stern threats to Russia about the high costs of a military incursion.
Mr Biden “told President Putin directly that if Russia further invades Ukraine, the United States and our European allies would respond with strong economic measures”, US national security adviser Jake Sullivan said.
He added that Mr Biden said the US would also “provide additional defensive material to the Ukrainians … and we would fortify our Nato allies on the eastern flank with additional capabilities in response to such an escalation”.
White House officials made clear that Mr Biden is not interested in putting US troops in harm’s way defending Ukraine.
But Mr Sullivan added that potential efforts to bolster regional allies could lead to additional deployments of US troops to eastern European Nato allies.
A top US envoy, Victoria Nuland, said a Russian invasion of Ukraine would also jeopardise a controversial pipeline between Russia and Germany known as Nord Stream 2.
She told the US senate’s foreign relations committee on Tuesday that if Russia invaded, “our expectation is that the pipeline will be suspended”.
Mr Ushakov dismissed the sanctions threat during his own comments to reporters following the leaders’ meeting.
— Russian Embassy in USA 🇷🇺 (@RusEmbUSA) December 7, 2021
He said: “While the US president talked about possible sanctions, our president emphasised what Russia needs.
“Sanctions aren’t something new, they have been in place for a long time and will not have any effect.”
He described the presidents’ video conference as “candid and businesslike”, adding that they also exchanged occasional jokes.
In a brief snippet of the start of their meeting broadcasted by Russian state television, the two leaders offered friendly greetings to each other.
“I welcome you, Mr President,” Mr Putin said, speaking with a Russian flag behind him and a video monitor showing Mr Biden in front of him.
At the White House, Mr Sullivan called it “a useful meeting”, allowing Mr Biden to lay out in candid terms where America stands.
But as the US and Russian presidents conferred, Ukrainian officials grew only more anxious about the tens of thousands of Russian troops that have been deployed near its border.
Ukrainian officials said Russia had further escalated the crisis by sending tanks and snipers to war-torn eastern Ukraine to “provoke return fire” and lay a pretext for a potential invasion.
US intelligence officials have not been able to independently verify that accusation.
But the official said that the White House has directly raised concerns with the Russians about “resorting to their old playbook” by trying to provoke the Ukrainians.
Mr Putin entered the call looking for guarantees from Mr Biden that an expansion of the Nato military alliance would never include Ukraine, a demand that was a non-starter for the US and its Nato allies.
The Kremlin, in a post-call statement, said Nato had been “making dangerous attempts to expand its presence on the Ukrainian territory and has been expanding its military potential near Russian borders”.
Separately, Mr Putin proposed to lift all mutual restrictions on diplomatic missions and help normalise other aspects of bilateral relations, according to the Kremlin.
Mr Sullivan said the leaders would direct their staff to continue negotiations on that.
US intelligence officials have determined that Russia has moved 70,000 troops near the Ukraine border and has made preparations for a possible invasion early next year.
Mr Sullivan said the US believes that Mr Putin has not yet made a final decision to invade.
Mr Biden was vice president in 2014 when Russian troops strode into the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea and annexed the territory from Ukraine.
Aides say the Crimea episode – one of the darker moments for then-president Barack Obama on the international stage – looms large as Mr Biden considers the current crisis.
Mr Biden’s Republican opponents in Washington are framing this moment as a key test of the president’s leadership on the global stage.
The US leader vowed as a candidate to reassert American leadership after former president Donald Trump’s emphasis on an “America First” foreign policy.
“I will look you in the eye and tell you as President Biden looked President Putin in the eye and told him today that things we did not do in 2014, we are prepared to do now,” Mr Sullivan told reporters after the leaders’ video call.
Republicans claim Mr Biden has been ineffective in slowing Iran’s march toward becoming a nuclear power and has done too little to counter autocratic leaders including China’s Xi Jinping and Mr Putin.
“Fellow authoritarians in Beijing and Tehran will be watching how the free world responds,” senate minority Leader Mitch McConnell said from the US senate floor before the Biden-Putin meeting.
However, Mr Sullivan said Mr Biden and Mr Putin had a “good discussion” on efforts to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power and called it an area where the two countries could cooperate.