Tuesday, the U.S. and NATO met with Ukraine’s foreign minister to signal support. President Joe Biden spoke with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday and suggested a third-country summit “in the coming months to address the full range of issues facing the U.S. and Russia,” the White House said.
The call came days after Biden talked to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky about a major buildup of Russian forces along Ukraine’s border and in Crimea, the Ukrainian peninsula occupied by Russia since 2014.
Ukraine’s foreign minister traveled to Brussels to speak with Biden’s state secretary Antony Blinken and senior NATO officials Tuesday in a clear signal of support for Kyiv against any Russian aggression.
During his call with Putin, the White House said, Biden, urged him to “de-escalate tensions” with Ukraine—and cautioned that the US must “act strongly” to protect its own interests after Russia’s repeated cyber-attacks and interference with elections.
Biden stressed a more complex approach to Russia than his predecessor, Donald Trump, who pursued warmer ties with Putin and was criticized for downplaying Russian aggression, particularly his interference with him in the 2016 presidential election.
“President u reaffirmed his intention of establishing a secure, predictable relationship with Russia compatible with U.S. interests,” he said Tuesday at the White House. U.S. officials have previously referred to the deal to expand New START, the latest U.S.-Russia nuclear weapons reduction treaty, as an illustration of how both countries might find common ground—and Biden called for “adding on” that during the call.
The Kremlin reported interest, saying, “Both sides expressed willingness to continue dialogue on the most critical areas of global security… Biden expressed interest in normalizing bilateral relations and maintaining secure and predictable cooperation on critical issues such as Iran’s nuclear program, Afghanistan, and climate change.
But Russia’s huge military buildup on Ukraine’s borders may make Washington’s cooperation anathema. Russia has gathered 41,000 soldiers at its border with eastern Ukraine and 42,000 more in Crimea, according to a President Zelensky spokesman.
Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu announced Tuesday that the military had sent two armies and three airborne formations to the area, but said they participated in military drills and in reaction to increased U.S. and NATO military activity.
Besides massing troops, in recent weeks, Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine have intensified war. According to the Ukrainian military, 28 Ukrainian soldiers were killed this year by renewed shelling and machine-gun fire — a dramatic rise in the long-running war that killed over 14,000 civilians.
Beyond the battlefield, Russia has conducted “a blatantly orchestrated misinformation campaign to blame Ukraine for what the Kremlin’s own activities are,” according to top U.S. European diplomat Phil Reeker, who travelled to NATO headquarters with Blinken.
Tuesday, the two met Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba — part of a strong signal of Western support for Kiev, including a meeting with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg and the NATO-Ukraine Commission. Although Ukraine is not a Western Alliance member, it has repeatedly tried to join, with Zelensky saying last week that a road to membership “is the only way to end the Donbass war” and give a “true signal to Russia.”
Stoltenberg did not comment on Ukrainian membership, but during a press conference with Kuleba, he called Russia’s military buildup “unjustified, mysterious, and profoundly concerned” and said the alliance would continue to “provide more practical assistance to Ukraine to help them protect themselves.”
In their own meeting, Blinken affirmed that the U.S. “stands firmly behind Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity,” while Kuleba called their meeting a “positive sign” that helps “make it very clear to Russia that its aggression against Ukraine would be too hard to bear.”
But the price would be uncertain. Blinken warned of “consequences” if Russia sends troops or weapons to Ukraine, but gave no information. A senior official in the State Department said it could include weapons sales or sanctions, saying the U.S. has to “continuously look at their needs.”
The White House said Biden increased the buildup, but warned of no response: “The President expressed our concerns about the sudden Russian military build-up in occupied Crimea and on Ukraine’s borders, and urged Russia to de-escalate tensions,” he said in his readout.
Biden’s call seemed more focused on U.S.-Russian ties. Early in his presidency, the new president directed the intelligence community to conduct a study of Russia’s alleged involvement in hacking SolarWinds, bounties on U.S. troops in Afghanistan, election interference in 2020, and poisoning opposition leader Alexei Navalny.
As the investigation continues, the U.S. joined other allies in sanctioning many Russian officials for Navalny’s poisoning and jailing. A U.S. response to the SolarWinds hack, which U.S. officials said Russia was responsible for, is coming soon.
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