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Biden warned Putin of ‘strong’ response if Ukraine is attacked

Justin Sink and Ilya Arkhipov

President Joe Biden warned Russian President Vladimir Putin in a two-hour call on Tuesday that the U.S. would respond powerfully to an attack on Ukraine, according to the White House. 

“President Biden voiced the deep concerns of the United States and our European Allies about Russia’s escalation of forces surrounding Ukraine and made clear that the U.S. and our Allies would respond with strong economic and other measures in the event of military escalation,” according to the statement.

While the statement didn’t mention plans for a future in-person summit, the White House added that “the two presidents tasked their teams to follow up, and the U.S. will do so in close coordination with allies and partners.”

Biden now plans to call the leaders of France, Italy, the U.K. and Germany to brief them on the conversations, the White House said. He’s expected to speak with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy in the coming days. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan will also brief reporters at 2 p.m., according to a statement. 

The call on Tuesday -- the fourth direct conversation between the leaders this year -- came with tensions spiking over Moscow’s massing of troops along the border with Ukraine. 

U.S. officials say their intelligence suggests Russia has drafted a plan for a military offensive against Ukraine as soon as early 2022 involving as many as 175,000 personnel along with armor, artillery and other equipment. U.S. intelligence has also detected an uptick in Russian propaganda targeting Ukraine, fueling speculation the Kremlin is readying an attack, according to a Biden administration official who requested anonymity to detail the intelligence assessments.

Among the potential U.S. options, if Russia invades Ukraine, is pressing Germany to agree to stop the contested Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, according to documents seen by Bloomberg and people familiar with the plans.

The Kremlin says it doesn’t intend to invade and accuses the U.S. and its allies of expanding their military infrastructure into Ukraine in a way that Russia sees as threatening.

Before the talks, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov declined to comment on the reports of planned sanctions, saying the “emotional statements” of recent days wouldn’t affect the talks.

“It’s obvious that if the presidents are having this conversation, they intend to discuss the issues and not drive things into a dead end,” Peskov said on a conference call with reporters Tuesday, while warning against expecting breakthroughs.

Russian television showed the start of the meeting, with the American president saying “good to see you again” and lamenting that the two leaders weren’t able to meet up at the Group of 20 meeting this year, which Putin skipped over Covid-19 concerns. 

If there is an attack on Ukraine, U.S. and European allies are also weighing penalties that would target Russia’s largest banks and the country’s ability to convert rubles into foreign currencies, including the dollar. 

In a briefing Monday on Capitol Hill, U.S. Under Secretary of State Victoria Nuland faced push-back from senators who said the U.S. was limiting its options to deter an invasion by not providing more weaponry to Ukraine and failing to stop the Nord Stream 2 pipeline.

While Russian officials have rejected suggestions that they are seeking to stoke a conflict, Putin has made clear that he views Western military support for Ukraine -- especially the possibility of greater integration with the NATO alliance -- as a “red line.” And Russian officials have accused the government in Kyiv of planning to attack Russia-backed separatists that Russia supports in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region. Ukraine rejects those charges. 

Before the call, the Kremlin said Putin would push his proposal for legally binding security guarantees that NATO wouldn’t expand further eastward and wouldn’t deploy offensive weapons in the region. White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki has said that Putin has no say in NATO’s membership.

Biden was expected to tell Putin that there would be benefits for Russia if he decides against military action and instead pursues diplomacy, according to the senior U.S. official. And the U.S. president planned to press Putin on separate issues, including assistance reviving the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran and continued cyberattacks originating from Russia. 

The tensions between the U.S. and Russia were evident in Stockholm last week, when Secretary of State Antony Blinken and his Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, got into a testy exchange at a private dinner with dozens of other officials over each side’s interpretation of who was to blame over the current state of affairs in Ukraine.

With assistance by Alberto Nardelli, Vanessa Dezem, and Daniel Flatley