Biden warns Putin against Ukraine aggression, invites him to a summit meeting

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David Lauter, Tracy Wilkinson
·6 min read
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President Joe Biden speaks during a ceremony to honor slain U.S. Capitol Police officer William "Billy" Evans as he lies in honor at the Capitol in Washington, Tuesday, April 13, 2021. (Amr Alfiky/The New York Times via AP, Pool)
President Biden, shown at an event in the Capitol Tuesday, has invited Russia's Vladimir Putin to meet in a third country in coming months, the White House says. (Pool Photo)

President Biden spoke Tuesday morning with Russian President Vladimir Putin, warning him against aggressive moves toward Ukraine but also inviting him to a summit meeting in coming months.

Biden suggested that the two leaders meet in a third country to discuss their differences, the White House said in a statement.

Biden "voiced our concerns over the sudden Russian military build-up in occupied Crimea and on Ukraine’s borders, and called on Russia to deescalate tensions," the statement said. "Biden also made clear that the United States will act firmly in defense of its national interests in response to Russia’s actions, such as cyber intrusions and election interference."

The announcement came as Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III met in Brussels with Ukrainian officials and NATO allies to discuss coordinating in response to Russia's military moves along its border with Ukraine.

"We’re now seeing the largest concentration of Russian forces on Ukraine’s border since 2014, and that is of deep concern not only to Ukraine, but to the United States, and indeed to many of our allies and partners," Blinken said.

The Russian government released a statement several hours later that did not say whether Putin would accept Biden's summit invitation. It said that Biden had "suggested considering the possibility of holding a personal meeting at the highest level in the foreseeable future."

The Kremlin statement said that the two presidents had conducted "an exchange of opinions on Ukraine’s internal political crisis” and that Putin had told Biden about "approaches to a political settlement."

The two also discussed arms control, the Iranian nuclear program, the situation in Afghanistan and climate change, the Russians said.

Russia seized Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, later annexing the territory, and continues to back separatists in eastern Ukraine in an insurgency that has resulted in some 14,000 deaths.

In recent weeks, a surge of cease-fire violations in the region, along with Russian troop movements at the border, has made U.S. and European officials worry that Russia might invade Ukrainian territory.

Two weeks ago, Biden spoke with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and expressed his support in the face of the Russian moves.

A senior State Department official, briefing reporters in Brussels under State Department ground rules that require anonymity, said that "this enormous buildup" that the Russians have made could be in preparation for a move "to take aggressive action, but we don't know their intentions obviously."

Just as worrisome as the buildup of Russian troops and hardware, the official said, are reports that Russians have erected field hospitals in the border area and are jamming radios and flooding Russian media with anti-Ukraine disinformation.

"To this day, they've given no good explanation of what they're doing with this enormous and costly buildup," the official said.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu was quoted by Russian news agencies claiming that the military deployments were in response to reports that the U.S. and NATO were buttressing their own military presence in the Baltic region of Europe, a perceived threat to Moscow.

The briefing came after Blinken met with Ukraine's Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba on the sidelines of a NATO ministerial summit.

The administration wanted to reiterate that the United States "stands firmly behind the sovereignty and the territorial integrity of Ukraine," Blinken told reporters ahead of the meeting. "And that’s particularly important at a time when we’re seeing, unfortunately, Russia take very provocative action when it comes to Ukraine."

Blinken also said he and NATO partners would discuss Ukraine's "Euro-Atlantic aspirations," a reference to Ukraine's desire to join NATO and other European institutions that Putin strongly opposes.

Consultations with NATO allies over Ukraine will continue in the coming days, Blinken said.

Kuleba said the meetings were "extremely timely," adding that the "Russian buildup is taking place not only along the border of Ukraine, but along the border of the democratic world."

The U.S. has limited options in the Ukraine conflict. Starting during the Trump administration, Washington has been supplying Ukraine with weapons and has imposed numerous economic sanctions on Russia's government, companies and oligarchs with ties to Putin.

Pressed repeatedly about what steps the U.S. can take if Russia does act against Ukraine, the U.S. official who briefed reporters declined to elaborate.

Philip T. Reeker, acting assistant secretary of state for Europe, who was accompanying Blinken in Brussels, said earlier in the day that "if Russia acts recklessly or aggressively, there will be costs. There will be consequences to that."

"What we’re focused on now is discussion and meeting with our allies and others who are equally concerned," Reeker said. The U.S. was working with the Vienna-based Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe "to try to address those concerns and see deescalation by Russia in terms of not only the military threat, but also this disinformation and the rhetoric that’s flowing," he added.

The OSCE is a much wider grouping than NATO, with 57 member countries including Russia and Ukraine.

White House press Secretary Jen Psaki also declined to comment on additional steps the U.S. might take against Russia beyond saying that the United States will impose "consequences" for Russian actions that it sees as improper, including election interference and cyberattacks.

Plans for a potential summit meeting were "just at the early stages of the discussions," Psaki said.

"We certainly expect the relationship to remain a challenge," she said., adding that Biden does not want an "adversarial relationship" with Moscow, but one that is "honest and candid."

The two countries can work together "where there is mutual interest" she said, citing arms control and the continuing negotiations over renewing the nuclear agreement with Iran, in which Russia, China, France, Britain, Germany and the European Union joined with the U.S.

In an interview last month, Biden labeled Putin a "killer," prompting an angry reaction from Moscow, which recalled its ambassador from Washington. The administration defended Biden's comment, saying he was being honest in response to a question but also adding that he continued to believe the U.S. and Russia must work together.

A summit between the two men would be the first meeting between the Russian and U.S. heads of state since Putin and President Trump held a meeting in Helsinki, Finland, in 2018. In a news conference after that meeting, Trump blamed U.S. officials for worsening relations between the two countries and accepted Putin's denials that his country had interfered in the 2016 U.S. election, despite American intelligence findings to the contrary.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.