WASHINGTON — President Biden warned Russian leader Vladimir Putin that invading Ukraine would result in “strong economic measures,” national security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters on Tuesday, shortly after Biden and Putin finished a videoconference lasting roughly two hours.
The call with Putin came at a sensitive time for Biden, who once helmed the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and had some diplomatic duties as vice president to Barack Obama.
Because of its size, regional influence and military might, Russia is a perennial headache for Washington. Tuesday’s video summit was evidence that even as Biden has sought a less frenetic foreign policy than that of his direct predecessor, the Kremlin’s walls are difficult to scale.
Sullivan said Ukraine was the main topic of discussion, with 90,000 Russian troops having gathered on the much smaller nation’s eastern border. Those happen to be the regions of Ukraine — Donetsk and Luhansk — where pro-Kremlin feelings are already strong to begin with.
“We still do not believe that President Putin has made a decision,” Sullivan told reporters. Putin, a former intelligence officer, is fond of psychological feints meant to test adversaries and show signs of Russia’s strength. And he has tested — and frustrated — every American president since George W. Bush.
Sullivan described the conversation between Biden and Putin as “direct and straightforward,” with Biden repeatedly warning his Russian counterpart that there would be severe consequences for transgressing Ukraine’s borders.
A White House summary of the call said the two leaders also discussed cybersecurity and Iran, but however pressing those issues are, they are not nearly as immediate as outright war in Eastern Europe.
But war isn’t the only threat Russia poses to Ukraine. In a Senate hearing on Tuesday, Under Secretary of State Victoria Nuland said the Kremlin was positioning itself for a range of potential actions that could destabilize the regime in Kyiv, including an “aggressive information operation” that could erode “social cohesion.”
Nuland warned that “Russia’s military and intelligence services are continuing to develop the capability to act decisively in Ukraine when ordered to do so, potentially in early 2022.”
Russia invaded part of Ukraine — a neighbor with close cultural and ethnic ties — in 2014, to little consequence beyond rounds of sanctions and international condemnation. The Crimean Peninsula, a key strategic land mass in the Black Sea, remains under Russian control, in a potent symbol of how emboldened Putin has grown over the years.
At the time, President Obama levied economic sanctions. Then, as now, there was little appetite for even the remote possibility of a military confrontation with a bellicose nuclear superpower. Sullivan did say, though, that the sanctions this time around could be more severe.
“Things we didn’t do in 2014, we are prepared to do now,” Sullivan said, though he did not elaborate. He did say the United States would provide military aid to Ukraine and other allies in the region.
Nuland echoed the same message, saying the U.S. and its allies agreed on the consequences Russia would face for attacking Ukraine.
“Russia must deescalate,” she told the Senate. “It must pull back its forces and return to negotiations. But if Russia attacks Ukraine, we will be united in imposing severe consequences on Moscow for its actions — including high-impact economic measures that we have refrained from using in the past.”
Sullivan said that aggression could imperil the Nord Stream-2, a massive project meant to deliver natural gas from Russia to Germany.
“If Putin wants to see gas flow through that pipeline,” the national security adviser warned, “he might not want to take the risk of invading Ukraine.”
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