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Biden warns Putin on call of heavy price from any Ukraine attack

Anatoliy, a Ukrainian soldier with the 56th Brigade, in a trench on the front line on Jan. 18, 2022 in Pisky, Ukraine. (Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images/TNS)

U.S. President Joe Biden again warned Russian President Vladimir Putin in an hourlong call on Saturday that any move to invade Ukraine would be met with a strong response that would impose “severe costs” on Moscow, the White House said.

Biden also told Putin during their conversation — their first direct exchange since late December — that the U.S. remained ready to find a diplomatic solution to the tensions over Russia’s military buildup near the Ukrainian border.

The call came a day after U.S. officials warned of the risk that Russia could take military action against Ukraine or attempt to ignite a conflict inside the country as soon as next week. Putin has said repeatedly he has no plans to invade. Russian officials accuse the West of undermining the country’s security by drawing Ukraine closer to NATO and say troop movements on Russian territory are an internal matter.

U.S. officials continue to say they do not know Putin’s final intentions. Still, a senior administration official, speaking after Saturday’s call, said there was a distinct possibility that Russia may proceed with military action and there had been no fundamental change in that view. The official added that Putin and Biden agreed their officials would stay in contact in the coming days.

The U.S. and U.K. say Russia has massed about 130,000 troops close to Ukraine, raising fears of a potential three-pronged assault including from Crimea and via Belarus in the north. NATO has moved to reinforce defenses in Eastern European member states

Putin spoke separately with the leaders of France and Belarus on Saturday prior to his call with Biden. Russia and Belarus on Feb. 10 started their largest joint military drills in Belarus for years, including near the Ukrainian border, while six Russian landing craft have been moved to the Black Sea for naval exercises that begin Sunday.

The land exercises are due to end Feb. 20. Both countries have said the drills are purely defensive and that forces will return to base once they are finished. Ukraine has also begun military exercises in parallel.

Potential actions by Russia could include causing a provocation in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region, where Ukrainian forces have been fighting for years against separatists backed by Moscow, or attacking the country’s capital, Kyiv, Western officials familiar with the matter said, asking not to be identified speaking about such a sensitive topic. They stressed that Putin’s final intentions were not known.

“The hysteria of the White House is more revealing than ever,” Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova wrote on Friday in a Telegram post. “The Anglo-Saxons need a war. At any price. Provocations, misinformation and threats are a favorite method of solving one’s own problems.”

Putin and French President Emmanuel Macron on Saturday discussed what the Kremlin in a statement called “provocative speculations” that Russia plans an invasion of Ukraine. The Kremlin also said that “prerequisites are being created for possible aggressive actions of the Ukrainian security forces” in Donbas. Ukraine has repeatedly denied it intends to seek to regain control of Donbas militarily.

Putin told Macron he had no offensive intention, an official from France’s Elysee told reporters after their call. “We have no sign that he will go on the offensive. That said we are being very careful,” the official added. Macron on Saturday also spoke with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and with Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, as the diplomatic flurry continues to find an off-ramp to the tensions with Russia.

The Russian president is yet to reply formally to U.S. proposals on security in Europe. Those proposals were made in response to Moscow’s demands for security guarantees including that NATO never allow Ukraine to join and that the military alliance pull back its presence in eastern Europe. Speaking after a call on Saturday between Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, a senior State Department official said Lavrov indicated Moscow would provide its official reply soon. Russia has said that the Western proposals so far do not address its core concerns.

U.K. Defense Secretary Ben Wallace said on Friday that Russia has the capability to attack Ukraine “at any time,” though he said he’d received assurances from Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of the Russian General Staff Valery Gerasimov that it won’t do so. “When they say to me they are not going to invade Ukraine we will take that seriously,” Wallace told reporters after talks in Moscow. “But as I have also said, we will look at the actions that accompany it.”

Scholz is due to visit Putin in Moscow on Tuesday for talks, a day after he goes to Kyiv. Biden warned after a Feb. 7 meeting with Scholz in Washington that “we will bring an end” to the controversial Nord Stream 2 natural gas-pipeline project from Russia to Germany if Putin ordered an invasion.


©2022 Bloomberg L.P.

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