President Biden and Vladimir Putin spoke by telephone on Thursday, the second direct conversation between the two leaders in the past three weeks as the Russian leader continues to seek assurances from the West before withdrawing troops positioned along his country’s border with Ukraine.
The 50-minute phone call, which a senior administration official described as “serious and substantial”, did not produce any breakthrough. Rather, it was an opportunity for the two leaders, the official said, to “set the tone and content for the forthcoming diplomatic engagement” ahead of talks scheduled for next month in Geneva.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said in a statement that Biden “urged Russia to defuse tensions with Ukraine. He has made it clear that the United States and its allies and partners will react strongly. decisively if Russia invaded Ukraine further. “
Expressing his support for diplomacy ahead of the Geneva talks, the president “reaffirmed that substantial progress in these dialogues can only occur in an environment of de-escalation rather than escalation,” Psaki said.
Administration officials said they were unsure why Putin sought to speak to Biden, who warned his Russian counterpart in a video call on December 7 not to invade Ukraine. Neither leader will participate directly in the bilateral talks that will begin on January 10 in Geneva.
The White House remains hopeful that the talks and the threat of tough economic sanctions from the United States and its European allies would be enough to deter Putin from invading. But in the three weeks since his last conversation with Biden, Putin has done little to indicate which direction he might choose, keeping the roughly 100,000 Russian troops in place along the Ukrainian border but not attacking yet.
In the meantime, he continued to demand security guarantees from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, wary of alliance efforts to bolster Ukraine’s defenses.
“There is a strong incentive for the Kremlin to create ambiguity about what exactly it is doing,” said Ian Bremmer, chairman of Eurasia Group, a New York-based global risk assessment firm.
According to the administration official who briefed reporters after the call, Biden again made it clear to Putin that the United States is consulting NATO allies closely and that it would be up to Russia to determine if the situation had to be resolved diplomatically or risk economic sanctions by attacking Ukraine.
“We’re really focused on the action and the indicators, not the words at this point,” said the official, who requested anonymity to describe the leaders’ call. “We will therefore continue to monitor very closely the movements and reinforcement of Russian forces on the Ukrainian border and prepare for any final decisions taken by the Russian president.”