WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden warned President Vladimir Putin of Russia on Tuesday that an invasion of Ukraine would result in heavy economic penalties for him and lead NATO to reposition its troops in Europe, measures that he said would go well beyond the West’s response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea seven years ago.
In a two-hour secure video conference that American and Russian officials both described as tense but occasionally pierced by humor, Biden also said an invasion could end Russia’s hopes of completing the Nord Stream II gas pipeline to Europe, which would be a major new source of energy revenue.
It is too early to tell whether the much-anticipated conversation — whose details were hard to elicit, as both the White House and the Kremlin put their spin on it — will alleviate the immediate crisis in Ukraine, where roughly 70,000 Russian troops have massed, with more equipment and personnel arriving every day.
Putin gave no indication of his ultimate intent, American officials said, leaving the world guessing whether he was actually planning an invasion early next year or trying to get the West to pay attention to his demands by manufacturing a crisis.
In a brief video of the opening moments of the call released by Russian state television, Putin said, “Greetings, Mr. President!”
“Good to see you again,” Biden responded warmly, after what appeared to be a brief connection glitch, and lamented that they had not seen each other in person this fall at the Group of 20 summit meeting. But neither side released any conversation on the issues at hand.
Not surprisingly, both sides portrayed their leaders as unwilling to back down. Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security adviser, said the president was “clear,’’ “direct” and “candid.”
The Russian government, in an unusually detailed description of the encounter, said Putin had warned Biden that Western military activity in and around Ukraine was approaching a “red line” that was threatening Russia’s security.
“There was no finger-wagging, but the president was crystal clear,’’ Sullivan told reporters after the session, which Biden conducted from the White House Situation Room and Putin from his retreat on the Black Sea. Asked for specifics about the consequences facing Russia, Sullivan declined to go into detail.
“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,” Sullivan said, referring to the year Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula. Virtually no country has recognized the action, and Western powers continue to levy sanctions against Russia for it. But the sanctions have failed in their primary objective: to create enough pain for Russia that it returns the territory.
In recent days, American officials have said that a list of potential penalties being composed by the Treasury Department, in collaboration with European allies, ranges from blocking Russian companies from access to global capital markets to financial penalties aimed at the Russian elite, especially the oligarchs who have helped finance and support Putin. The most extreme step — one that is still being debated — would be to cut Russia off from the global financial settlement system, called SWIFT, but some European officials have feared that step might provoke too harsh a response.
Sullivan also held out the possibility of “an alternative pathway by which we can make progress on diplomacy,’’ describing what would be, in essence, a return to a diplomatic process Russia engaged in six years ago — but has largely ignored since.
Russian officials said the tone of the call was “honest and businesslike.” But Putin’s key message, the Kremlin maintained, was that Western military activity was a threat to Russia and that the United States was raising tensions in the region by increasing its “military potential near our borders.”
What Putin sees as a red line, Ukraine and the West see as reasonable defense for a country that already lost control of Crimea — still “occupied territory,” in the U.S.’ description — and has been engaged in a war of attrition in Donbas, in the east.
Since the Crimea takeover, the United States has committed more than $2.5 billion in security assistance, including air surveillance radars, counterartillery radars, drones, secure communications armed patrol boats and, most importantly, Javelin anti-tank systems. The last of those have worried Russian military leaders enough that some of the tanks seen massing on the borders are sporting new deflectors, like a metal umbrella, to deceive the missile’s homing systems.
The summit had the feel of a return to the East-West politics of the Cold War, when NATO strategy was focused on how to halt an invasion from the former Soviet Union, and Moscow was seeking respect and deference. But at stake was the continued independence of Ukraine, which won its independence after the fall of the Soviet Union, whose collapse Putin has described as a tragedy of 20th-century geopolitics. And White House aides were highly aware that while their options were limited — there is no discussion of direct military involvement by the United States — a failure to deter Putin could be seen as a sign of weakness around the world, especially by China.
Putin speaks often about Ukraine’s historical and ethnic ties to Russia, saying they are “one people,” and finds Kyiv’s talk of eventual membership in NATO and the European Union both a security threat and an affront to his country’s national pride.
While the two men met, a senior State Department official, Victoria Nuland, warned the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the Russian leader seemed emboldened.
“Much of this comes right out of Putin’s 2014 playbook, but this time, it is much larger and on a much more lethal scale,’’ said Nuland, a Russia specialist who has angered Putin in the past. “So despite our uncertainty about exact intentions and timing, we must prepare with our allies and partners for all contingencies, even as we push Putin to reverse course.”
Nuland also suggested that Ukraine might be drawing closer to the point of employing defensive Javelin anti-tank missiles that the United States had supplied to its military in recent years but which had been kept in storage, partly for fear of antagonizing Putin.
“The Ukrainians are having to think differently about their own security, and in fact, some of the defensive lethal support that the U.S. has given Ukraine over the years, they’ve had in storage containers, and I think we’ll now see them have to put that stuff out and be thinking very hard about their own civil defense,” Nuland said.
She also confirmed in the Senate hearing that Nord Stream was on the table, saying, “I think if President Putin moves on Ukraine, our expectation is that the pipeline will be suspended.”
Speaking to a Wall Street Journal forum Tuesday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken called the crisis “bigger even than Ukraine,” saying that not only is the fate of the former Soviet republic at stake but also the larger principle that international borders should not be violated or redrawn by force.
The evening before the conference between Biden and Putin, the director of the CIA, William Burns, a former U.S. ambassador to Russia, said Putin may conclude in the next few months — as the ground freezes in the marshy territory on the Russia-Ukraine border and Russia completes its military buildup — that the time is ripe for action.
“I think tactically, as President Putin probably looks at this winter, at the next few months, he may see a more favorable landscape.”
Biden’s task Tuesday was to change that view and use what little leverage he has — since it is clear to Putin that there is no circumstance in which U.S. or NATO troops would directly enter any battle to defend Ukraine.
Tuesday’s summit came on the 80th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Biden brought up the shared sacrifice of the United States and the Soviet Union during their alliance of necessity in World War II.
But shared sacrifice was not the topic at hand.
When Biden raised the threat of new economic steps to isolate Moscow, an adviser to Putin, Yuri Ushakov, said the Russian leader diminished the importance of such steps, saying that “sanctions are not a new thing for Russia.” He made no promises to change the posture of Russian troops near the border or to pull them back.
“The Russian troops are on their own territory,” Ushakov said, summarizing Putin’s message to Biden. “They don’t threaten anyone.”
Today, a senior U.S. defense department official said, there are 60,000 to 70,000 Russian troops on the border with Ukraine. U.S. intelligence agencies say they expect that figure to grow to 175,000. The biggest test of whether the video meeting changed Putin’s mind will be whether that military buildup abates.
At the end of the meeting, Putin underlined that the stakes in the current crisis were higher for Russia than they were for the United States, his aide said. He was apparently talking geographically — since he considers Ukraine to be a rightful part of Russia — while Biden’s concern is that allowing Putin to redraw the post-Cold War lines will subject more than 40 million Ukrainians to control by an autocratic government.
Sullivan was vague about what diplomatic alternatives Biden offered, saying several times that he wanted to keep the talks confidential to allow the leaders room for negotiation. “They need to have that space,’’ he said.
But the initiatives appear to be a return to some variations on the Minsk accords, which provide a road map for resolving the territorial differences — a map that many Ukrainians do not like and the Russians have not obeyed since they were signed in 2015.