WILMINGTON, Delaware (AP) – Presidents Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin spoke for nearly an hour late Thursday night amid growing concerns over a Russian troop build-up near Ukraine, an ongoing crisis that has worsened further as the Kremlin stepped up its calls for security guarantees and tested hypersonic missiles to highlight its claims.
Putin requested the call, the second for leaders this month, ahead of scheduled talks between senior US and Russian officials on January 10 in Geneva.
White House officials said the call began at 3:35 pm ET and ended 50 minutes after midnight in Moscow. There was no immediate reading of evidence from either side.
WATCH: Biden and Putin to host another videoconference amid tensions in Ukraine
Russia has made it clear that it wants a written commitment that Ukraine will never be allowed to join NATO and that the alliance’s military equipment will not be deployed in former Soviet republics, demands that the Biden administration made clear are unfulfilled.
The White House said ahead of the call that Biden would tell Putin that the diplomatic path remains open, even as the Russians have deployed some 100,000 troops to Ukraine and Kremlin officials have increased their demands for new US and NATO guarantees. …
These demands will be discussed during the Geneva talks, but it remains unclear what Biden is prepared to offer Putin in exchange for defusing the crisis, if anything at all.
Moscow’s draft security documents call for NATO to deny membership to Ukraine and other former Soviet states and scale back its military operations in Central and Eastern Europe.
The United States and its allies have refused to provide Russia with the guarantees Putin wants for Ukraine, citing the NATO principle that membership is open to any eligible country. However, they agreed to hold talks with Russia to address its concerns.
Moscow’s security proposal raised the question of whether Putin is making unrealistic demands in anticipation of a Western refusal that would give him a pretext to invade.
Stephen Pifer, a career diplomat who served as the US ambassador to Ukraine in the Clinton administration, said the Biden administration could tackle some elements of Russia’s draft document if Moscow is serious about negotiating.
Key NATO members have made it clear that they have no appetite for enlarging the alliance in the near future. The US and its allies may also be receptive to the language in the draft document by the Russians calling for the creation of new consultative mechanisms such as the NATO-Russia Council and the NATO-Russia hotline.
“The proposed ban on any NATO military activity in Ukraine, Eastern Europe, the Caucasus or Central Asia is excessive, but some measures to limit military exercises and actions on a reciprocal basis may be possible,” said Pifer, who is now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution wrote the analysis for a Washington think tank.
Biden planned to tell Putin that for “real progress” the negotiations must be conducted “in the context of de-escalation, not escalation,” a senior administration official said, who briefed reporters ahead of the call. The official spoke on condition of anonymity.
This was announced on Thursday by Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov.
“The purpose of the conversation is clear – to continue the discussion of the issues that were on the agenda during the recent conversation, via videoconference,” Peskov told reporters. The December 7 call focused on Russian troop movements that have raised concerns among Ukraine and other European allies, as well as Moscow’s demands for security guarantees.
Biden and Putin, who met in Geneva in June to discuss a series of tensions between the US and Russia, are not expected to participate in January’s talks.
In a video call on December 7, the White House said that Biden had warned Moscow that an invasion of Ukraine would impose sanctions and wreak havoc on the Russian economy. Russian officials have rejected threats of sanctions.
Russia tested Zircon hypersonic missiles last week. The provocative move, according to Peskov, was supposed to help make Russia’s pursuit of security guarantees “more convincing.” This marks the first time the Zircon missiles have been fired in salvo, signaling the completion of tests before the new missile enters service with the Russian Navy next year and will be armed with its cruisers, frigates and submarines.
Earlier this month, US intelligence determined that Russia is planning a possible military offensive that could begin as early as 2022, but Putin has yet to determine whether he should continue.
Oleksiy Danilov, secretary of Ukraine’s Security and Defense Council, said Thursday that his country believes there is no immediate threat of a major Russian invasion.
“Our experts say that the Russian Federation simply cannot physically organize a large-scale invasion of our territory,” Danilov said. “There is a preparation time.”
This week, the U.S. military conducted reconnaissance flights into Ukrainian airspace, including a flight on Thursday in a U.S. Air Force E-8C JSTARS, said Chuck Pritchard, a spokesman for U.S. European Command. This aircraft is equipped for reconnaissance of ground forces.
Pritchard said such flights with European allies are “regularly” and this week’s missions “were not a response to any particular event.”
Representatives of Moscow and NATO, as well as Russia and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which includes the United States, are expected to meet in a few days after the Geneva talks.
Russia denied intending to launch an invasion and, in turn, accused Ukraine of hatching plans to try to take back control of territories held by Moscow-backed rebels by force. Ukraine dismissed the claim.
At the same time, Putin urged the West to act quickly to comply with his demands, warning that Moscow will have to take “adequate military-technical measures” if the West continues its “aggressive” course “on our doorstep.”
As Biden prepared to negotiate with Putin, the administration also sought to highlight its commitment to Ukraine and to state that Washington is committed to the “principle of nothing about you without you” when shaping policies that affect European allies.
Secretary of State Anthony Blinken spoke with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Wednesday.
Putin’s past military incursions have a huge impact.
In 2014, Russian troops entered the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea and seized territory from Ukraine. Russia’s annexation of Crimea was one of the darkest moments for President Barack Obama on the international stage.
US-Russia relations were severely damaged towards the end of President George W. Bush’s rule following Russia’s invasion of neighboring Georgia in 2008 after Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili ordered his troops to enter the breakaway region of South Ossetia.
Biden, who spends a week in his home state of Delaware, spoke to Putin from his home near Wilmington. The White House circulated a photograph of the president talking to the Russian leader from a table lined with family photographs.
On the eve of the call, Putin sent Biden a New Year and Christmas wish telegram, which was posted on the Kremlin’s website on Thursday along with other holiday messages to world leaders.
“I am convinced that by developing our agreements reached at the June summit in Geneva and subsequent contacts, we can move forward and establish an effective Russian-American dialogue based on mutual respect and taking into account each other’s national interests,” Putin wrote. …
This was announced by Vladimir Isachenkov from Moscow. Associated Press contributors Dasha Litvinova in Moscow, Robert Burns in Washington, and Juras Karmanov in Kiev, Ukraine contributed to this report.