WILMINGTON, Del. – After fierce talks between Presidents Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin on Russia’s troop build-up on the border with Ukraine, both sides insist they are hopeful that a way to ease tensions could open during diplomatic talks set for January.
But with less than two weeks left before senior US and Russian officials are due to meet in Geneva, the gap is deep and the prospect of finding an end to the crisis faces no shortage of complications.
Biden told reporters on Friday that he advised Putin, speaking on the phone a day earlier, that the forthcoming negotiations could only work if the Russian leader “de-escalated, not escalated, the situation” in the coming days. The US president said he was also trying to make it clear to Putin that the United States and its allies were ready to hit Russia with sanctions if the Russians further invade Ukraine.
“I made it clear to President Putin that if he takes more steps into Ukraine, we will have severe sanctions,” Biden said. “We want to increase our presence in Europe with NATO allies.”
Meanwhile, Biden’s national security team on Friday turned their attention to the preparations for the Geneva talks, scheduled for 9-10. January, to discuss that Russia should gather about 100,000 soldiers on the border with Ukraine.
The Geneva negotiations, led by US Foreign Ministry officials, are scheduled to be followed by Russia-NATO Council negotiations and a meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
Biden is scheduled to speak by telephone with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on Sunday. The two leaders plan to review preparations for the upcoming diplomatic engagements, according to the White House.
On Friday, Foreign Minister Antony Blinken debriefed Canadian Foreign Minister Mélanie Joly, Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg on the Biden-Putin call, and discussed preparations for the forthcoming summit.
“The next two weeks will be tough,” said Daniel Fried, a former US ambassador to Poland who was top adviser in Eastern Europe to Presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton. “The Biden administration has done a pretty credible job of outlining and framing the negotiations. But the toughest test has not yet come because Putin will continue to engage in threats and acumen to see how determined we are. ”
While Biden reiterated that he was ready to demand sanctions that would resonate throughout Russia, Kremlin officials doubled his warning to Biden of committing a “colossal mistake” that could have enormous consequences for an already charged US-Russian relationship.
A top aide from Putin reinforced on Friday that Russia stands by its demands for written security guarantees. Moscow wants it codified that any future enlargement of NATO should exclude Ukraine and other former Soviet bloc countries and demands that the bloc remove offensive weapons from countries in the Russian neighborhood.
“We will not allow our initiatives to be drowned in endless discussions,” Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told state news agency RIA-Novosti on Friday. “If there is no constructive response within a reasonable time and the West continues its aggressive course, Russia will have to take all necessary measures to maintain a strategic balance and remove unacceptable threats to our security.”
The Biden administration and NATO allies have made it clear that the Russian demands are non-starters.
The seemingly unrealistic rhetoric has led some in Washington to question how effective conversations can be.
Following the Biden-Putin call, a group of 24 former US national security officials and Russia experts – a group that includes several officials who served in the Obama, George W. Bush and Clinton administrations – issued a statement urging Biden to immediately , and publicly outline the sanctions Russia would face if Putin were to proceed with military action.
The signatories to the declaration included several former US ambassadors, including Fried, Russia’s envoys Michael McFaul and Alexander Vershbow, and Ukraine’s envoys Steven Pifer and John Herbst.
“We believe that the United States, in close consultation with its NATO allies and with Ukraine, should take immediate steps to influence the Kremlin’s cost-benefit calculations before the Russian leadership chooses further military escalation,” the group wrote. “Such a response would include a package of large and painful sanctions, which would be applied immediately if Russia attacks Ukraine. Ideally, the outlines of these sanctions would be communicated now to Moscow, so the Kremlin has a clear understanding of the extent of the economic hit. , it will meet. “
The Russians, for their part, continue to claim that they face an existential threat to Ukraine.
On Friday, Lavrov noted an increase in the supply of weapons to Ukraine and the growing number and scope of joint military exercises conducted by Western powers with Ukraine, accusing the “Kiev regime of naturally perceiving this support as a carte blanche for the use of force.” He added that Russia wants to protect its citizens living in eastern Ukraine.
“As for the inhabitants of the Donbas, where hundreds of thousands of our citizens live, Russia will take all necessary measures to protect them,” he said. “An appropriate response will be given to any military provocations from Kyiv against the Donbas.”
Simon Miles, a diplomatic and international historian of the Cold War at Duke University, said it would be a mistake by the White House to let “Russia unilaterally set the pace for what is unfolding.”
“Anything the United States can do to keep the Russians on the brink, as opposed to letting the Kremlin set the agenda, will be important in securing a favorable solution,” Miles said.
Starring: Associated Press writer Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow.