U.S. President Joe Biden and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin are set to hold a tense round of talks amid rising tensions over Russia's troop buildup on the Ukrainian border, NATO's future in the region, and Russia's security demands.
The two held their first face-to-face talks since Biden became president in June in Geneva and last spoke by telephone in July. But the December 7 meeting, to be held via videoconference, may turn out to be most consequential to date, with Washington aiming to deter Russia from a possible invasion of Ukraine and the Kremlin seeking guarantees that the former Soviet republic will never become a NATO member.
A senior U.S. administration official told reporters on December 6 that Biden will make clear to Putin that his administration will 'exact very real costs' on the Russian economy should the Kremlin decide to invade Ukraine, while also making clear 'that there is an effective way forward with respect to diplomacy.'
Biden's administration also said that it supported 'discussions between NATO and Russia to address larger issues of concern on both sides,' but would not rule out Ukraine's future membership in the North American alliance and is 'not going to operate according to...anyone's red lines.'
Putin has repeatedly described NATO expansion or the deployment of certain offensive missile capabilities in Ukraine as a 'red line.'
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on December 6 that 'of course, [the agenda] will be bilateral relations, which remain in a rather lamentable state," adding that questions around Ukraine, NATO expansion, and security guarantees will 'loom large.'
Prior to his videoconference with Putin, Biden spoke in a call with the leaders of U.S. allies Britain, France, Italy, and Germany, according to a statement by the White House.
The statement said the leaders reiterated their support for Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity and urged Russia to de-escalate tensions in the region.
Ukrainian officials say more than 90,000 Russian troops have been deployed along its border -- including on the Crimean Peninsula, which Russia seized by force from Ukraine in 2014. U.S. intelligence estimates suggest that the buildup could eventually reach 175,000 Russian troops. It's one of the largest movements of Russian forces toward Ukraine in years, outside of regularly scheduled and announced training exercises.
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That, plus the absence of more routine notification procedures shared even with adversaries, has set off alarm bells, not only in Ukraine, but in many NATO countries, particularly those in Eastern Europe.
"We do not know, or have a clear indication, that President Putin has actually given an affirmative action order here. It is more about planning and intentions then the kinds of movements we have seen. In this regard, the planning from our perspective is clear," the unidentified senior U.S. administration official said.
"We have seen the movement of additional capabilities, and forces, toward the vicinity of Ukraine, in multiple areas, and these movements are consistent with the planning under way for a military escalation in Ukraine," the official said.
Should 'Putin move in' and invade Ukraine, the official added, 'there would be an increasing request from Eastern Flank allies and a positive response from the United States for additional forces and capabilities and exercises to take place there.'
Copyright (c) 2018. RFE/RL, Inc. Republished with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Washington DC 20036