President Biden meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin as tensions in Ukraine rise

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ARI SHAPIRO, HTE:

Russia has spent weeks assembling troops on its border with Ukraine. The White House says it is gravely concerned about the situation. He fears Russian President Vladimir Putin will invade Ukraine. And when Putin asked to speak to President Biden on a call today – their second call this month – the answer was yes.

We now turn to Charles Maynes of NPR in Moscow and White House correspondent Asma Khalid. Glad to have you both here.

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: Hi.

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.

SHAPIRO: Asma, the two leaders spoke for almost an hour this afternoon. What did they discuss?

KHALID: Well, the White House said President Biden urged Russian President Vladimir Putin to defuse tensions with Ukraine. You know, as you mentioned, Ari, this is the second time the two leaders have spoken to each other in less than a month, and that alone says a lot about how serious the tensions are at the moment. The Biden administration sees this, they say, you know, as a real moment of crisis in its relationship with Russia.

The big question is whether or not Putin intends to invade Ukraine. The White House says there was no declaration of intent – is there? – as to what Putin is going to do with today’s conversation. But really, they’re focusing on the actions, not just the words they hear from Moscow.

A senior administration official described the tone of the phone call as, I quote, “serious and substantial” and said the two leaders acknowledged that there would likely be areas where they could reach agreement and others where it might not be possible. But they said one of the main goals of today’s talks was to set the tone and content for the upcoming talks in Geneva.

You know, one question though, Ari, was why Putin asked for the call at this particular time. The White House mentioned that it was part of a series of year-end appeals made by Putin.

SHAPIRO: Charles, I know it’s late in Moscow, but what is the Kremlin saying about it?

MAYNES: Yeah. We just heard from Putin’s presidential adviser, who called the talks good and open. He said they had created a foundation for those talks in Geneva, mentioned by Asma, which now appears to be taking place on January 9 and 10, so a day ahead of schedule. The Kremlin also issued a statement in which it said Putin had exposed Biden to the principles of these Russian security demands. These are the ones where Russia stresses that it wants legally binding guarantees against NATO’s eastward expansion and offensive weapons station near Russia’s borders. And this was supported by Putin’s adviser, who said Moscow was ready to listen to US concerns, presumably about Ukraine, but was more interested in such guarantees than any compromise.

And Putin had also repelled American threats to punish Russia. He warned Biden that a promise of massive sanctions could lead to a complete severing of US-Russian relations and that would be a huge mistake. And the Russian leader said that Moscow would react to any offensive weapon that NATO might station near its borders as the United States might do in such a situation; in other words, suggest an approach to the brink if it were so.

But, you know, overall I think there was a feeling that the Kremlin was happy with this conversation, at least in the sense that Putin was able to expose, once again, those Russian grievances about NATO and what it wants to do about it. And now they’re ready to see how it goes.

SHAPIRO: Asma, what does the United States want from the Kremlin here?

KHALID: I would say, in layman’s terms, they want to see evidence that Russia is defusing the situation with Ukraine. You know, that would mean a kind of troop withdrawal at the border. The Biden administration believes it really needs to see these signs in order to move forward in diplomatic talks in Geneva next month.

President Biden today reiterated to Putin that the United States and its allies will react decisively if Russia further invades Ukraine. This could include economic sanctions. It could also include additional help for Ukraine to defend against Russia. A senior administration official said Biden described two routes to Putin – one from diplomacy, the other from deterrence – and said that ultimately the route taken by the United States depends on actions from Moscow in the coming weeks.

SHAPIRO: Charles, a lot of it was driven by discontent in Moscow. What are some of the larger issues here?

MAYNES: Well, you know, as the call made it clear, NATO expansion is Putin’s main concern, and that reflects his bitterness over the end of the Cold War and how the alliance has expanded eastward despite objections from Moscow over the years. You know, Putin has clearly chosen NATO’s growing involvement in Ukraine as the time to bring this anger to its peak.

Now, for years of course, the Kremlin has tried to thwart Ukraine’s desire to join the euro, to join NATO, for example, which Putin sees as a threat. You know, and that was the driving force between Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. It was also – this explains Russia’s decision to support a separatist uprising in eastern Ukraine. And only with this Russian military build-up – the Kremlin is upping the stakes to force a broader calculation. He is using the threat of aggression against Ukraine as a bargaining chip. You know, Putin is trying to force the United States and NATO to agree to these Russian terms.

And the demands are vast. They don’t want – not only to ban Ukraine from NATO membership, but they also want NATO to withdraw its presence in Eastern and Central Europe where the alliance was even before countries like Poland or the Baltic States do not adhere to it. So, you know, in other words, Putin is trying to rewrite the history of the end of the Cold War a lot more to his liking.

SHAPIRO: And Asma, what is the United States saying at Putin’s request that NATO basically back down?

KHALID: I mean, publicly, it’s not a reasonable request from a White House point of view. The United States has plans to strengthen NATO’s position on its eastern flank if it sees more aggression from Russia. He is also ready to provide Ukraine with more help in defending itself against possible Russian occupation.

Now, the question of Ukraine joining NATO, I will say that is something that the Biden administration tried to deal with in a pretty delicate way. White House officials have said that ultimately it is Ukraine that countries have the right to determine their own alliances. But it is also true that NATO has not offered Ukraine any serious path to membership for the foreseeable future.

SHAPIRO: Asma Khalid and Charles Maynes from NPR, thank you both.

MAYNES: Thanks.

KHALID: Glad to do it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcription provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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