The Union Democrat

Biden left guessing over Putin’s aim in Ukraine


WASHINGTON — The video call between Presidents Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin lasted about two hours. It will take months to figure out if the two sides managed to defuse the crisis over Ukraine.

Biden sought to send a clear message: Russia must not go ahead with an invasion of Ukraine as the U.S. fears it might, and would face massive economic sanctions if it does. Putin, meanwhile, wanted the U.S. to know that Russia won’t tolerate NATO expanding further east or deploying weapons in Ukraine.

The talks were “very open, substantiv­e and constructi­ve,” Putin told reporters in

Sochi on Wednesday. Russia can’t but be concerned about the prospect of Ukraine joining NATO and “we proceed from the assumption that our concerns will be heard, at least this time,” he said, adding that the two sides agreed to set up a body to examine the issue in detail and that Russia would submit its proposals within a week.

Biden didn’t accede to Putin’s “red line” demands. And Putin made no promise to withdraw the 175,000 troops the U.S. says he’s amassing along the Ukrainian border. That highlighte­d how U.S. officials appeared to have no new clarity on the fundamenta­l question at the heart of this most recent standoff with Russia — whether Putin intends to invade Ukraine a second time, after taking Crimea in 2014.

Both sides said they got their messages across and were cautiously hopeful it would bring if not an easing of tensions, at least a break in the relentless escalation of recent weeks.

“Biden needed to show that he was ready to take active measures,” said Victoria Y. Zhuravleva, a foreignpol­icy expert at state-run think tank IMEMO in Moscow. “Putin demonstrat­ed that he has a tough position but is ready to talk.”

“Each side performed in the way it likes to see itself,” she said.

In the short term, the call on Tuesday appeared to be another victory for the Russian leader, who has made a specialty of keeping America guessing about his intentions. After a faceto-face meeting in June and three phone calls with Biden since January, Putin cemented his status as a force whose desires must be taken into account as the Biden administra­tion seeks to shore up its alliances with European nations and Ukraine.

NATO has said it’s open to membership for Ukraine and other countries provided they meet the membership criteria, but has shown no sign it’s willing to accept an applicatio­n any time soon.

While every country has the right to choose its own security arrangemen­ts “this should be done in such a way so as not to violate the interests of other parties and not to undermine the security of other countries — in this case, Russia,” Putin told reporters in Sochi after meeting Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis.

It’s “very positive that there was a long discussion” between Putin and Biden, Mitsotakis said. “I hope that there will be a road map for mutual de-escalation, because otherwise we will be led to situations that will take us many decades back and this is, I think, something that no one seeks nor wants.”

For its part, the Biden administra­tion detailed the sanctions it’s ready to impose on Russia if it attacks Ukraine, penalties that the U.S. says would cripple the country’s finances. Administra­tion officials also said they expect Germany would halt the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia in the event of an invasion.

Biden’s team also made clear that any invasion would backfire on Putin. Rather than splitting Ukraine off from the west, the U.S. will send more defensive weaponry to the country. And the U.S. would be willing to deploy more troops to NATO allies where American forces are already in heavy rotation.

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