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Biden warns Russian President Putin against military escalation on Ukraine border

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

We begin today with news of a two-hour video conference between U.S. President Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin. A bit of it was played on Russian TV.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN: Hello.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Good evening (ph).

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: (Laughter) Good to see you again. Unfortunately, last time I - we didn't get to see one another at the G-20. I hope next time we meet, we do it in person.

CORNISH: Russia has placed more than 94,000 of its troops near its border with Ukraine. That's according to Ukrainian officials. And those officials and their Western allies want to know if this is some sort of warning. So what did the heads of state say today over their call? We're going bring in NPR's Charles Maynes from Moscow and NPR White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez. Welcome back to the program.

FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: Thank you.

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: Good to be with you.

CORNISH: I'm going to start with you, Franco. What did President Joe Biden say during this call?

ORDOÑEZ: You know, Audie, he laid out what the United States is prepared to do should Russia invade Ukraine. National security adviser Jake Sullivan actually talked to reporters after the call, and he said the U.S. is ready to take tougher economic action than the Obama White House did in 2014. That's when Russia annexed Crimea and made incursions into the Donbas region. Here's what he said.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JAKE SULLIVAN: I will look you in the eye and tell you, as President Biden looked President Putin in the eye and told him today, that things we did not do in 2014, we are prepared to do now.

ORDOÑEZ: Now, he declined to go into detail about what sanctions would be in the works, but he said if Russia wants to send natural gas through the Nord Stream pipeline, it may not want to risk invading Ukraine. He called that leverage for the West. And he said the U.S. is also ready to send military materiel to Ukraine as well and would fortify allies on the eastern flank - places like Poland, Romania and the Baltics. And he says these are allies who would be nervous if, for example, Russia invades Ukraine.

CORNISH: Charles, what was the view from the Kremlin?

MAYNES: The Kremlin released a statement in which Putin essentially laid out Russian positions we already knew he had going in. It said Putin told Biden he wanted guarantees against NATO expansion eastward. Putin expressed concern about what the Kremlin called Kyiv's provocative actions against territories held by Moscow-backed separatists in the Donbas. That's in east Ukraine. And he spelled out to Biden ways in which Putin felt Kyiv was violating the Minsk peace accords. That's the cease-fire deal that, among other things, promises more autonomy to these separatist areas which are majority Russian speaking.

Now, the statement also noted Biden had spelled out sanctions that Russia could face should it invade Ukraine and said Biden and Putin had agreed to consultations that would continue on these sensitive questions surrounding Ukraine. So in a way, there's nothing shocking here. They don't see eye to eye. But just before the talks got underway, the Kremlin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, sought to tamp down both expectations for any breakthroughs but also of any public panic. He was cautioning everyone not to get too excited or worried, which kind of helped give this meeting more of a workaday feel rather than two global leaders at each other's throats.

CORNISH: Franco, in the meantime, in terms of leverage, the U.S. has sanctioned Russia before, right? How would this be different?

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah, it's really unclear right now because we don't have all the details. The reality, though, is that the United States has already imposed extensive sanctions on Russian companies and officials for various reasons in recent years. And there are real questions about whether those sanctions have actually deterred Putin in previous action. And it's tricky because there can be costs for the U.S. and its allies. Russia, of course, is a major oil and gas producer, and Europe counts on those supplies. Just for example, Germany is the main customer for supplies from the Nord Stream pipeline. I spoke with Matthew Rojansky. He's the director of the Kennan Institute, who is close to the administration, and he says if the Biden administration decides to go after Russian energy companies, the U.S. better make sure that European allies are on board.

MATTHEW ROJANSKY: The bigger, more immediate problem may also be for Europe in that it would boost already very high energy prices in the winter when Europe needs gas for heating. And in order to be taken seriously as a threat, we would have to show that Europe was on board, otherwise the Russians wouldn't believe that we were serious about it.

ORDOÑEZ: You know, he says the point of the sanctions is to not have to use them. It's really about deterrence - showing that they're serious and convincing Putin that the threat is real. And then maybe there's a better chance of deterring him from taking action.

CORNISH: Charles Maynes, how is this actually playing in Ukraine?

MAYNES: Well, you know, Ukraine's defense ministry today called out Russia for sending tanks and snipers into the east of Ukraine, trying to provoke returned fire, in their words. So of course, that's worrisome. But, you know, people I've spoken with in Ukraine have seemed remarkably calm throughout this. They seem - they've seen these recent maneuvers by Russia as more a leverage tactic by Putin than a threat of imminent invasion. One argument they make is that if you want to go to war, you don't signal it, as Putin obviously has with this buildup that the U.S. is taking notice of. And another point they make is that they've been dealing with this constant pressure from Russia, including the threat of force, really since 2014 and the annexation of Crimea. I spoke with Nataliya Gumenyuk. She is an independent foreign affairs journalist in Kyiv. And she asked, even in this latest standoff, what's fundamentally changed for Ukraine.

NATALIYA GUMENYUK: It's even more strange because Ukrainians are looking at the Western media and the Russian media and thinking, like, why they all of sudden the stakes are so high. For us, it's more or less the same thing as always. So it looks like a usual story.

CORNISH: More or less the same thing as always. Franco, what happens next?

ORDOÑEZ: Well, the White House says that Biden will talk to Zelensky on Thursday. But today, he reached out to European allies. He had a call with the leaders of France, Germany, Italy and the U.K. Sullivan said the U.S. has spent a lot of time talking to Germany specifically about the Nord Stream pipeline. You know, the White House says Biden and Putin have also directed each of their teams to follow up so that the conversation, you know, may end up continuing. Though, it's unclear what the diplomatic path is. And I'll just add, since the beginning of the administration, Biden has really been striving for a, you know, quote, "stable and predictable relationship." But today's call just shows how far away the two sides are from that goal.

CORNISH: And last word to you, Charles.

MAYNES: Yeah, we'll just be looking to see what happens to these Russian forces, of course, first of all, as well as if there is renewed interest from Moscow and Kyiv in the Minsk peace accords, perhaps now with more U.S. involvement.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Charles Maynes in Moscow and NPR's White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez. Thank you.

ORDOÑEZ: Thank you.

MAYNES: You got it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Franco Ordoñez
Franco Ordoñez is a White House Correspondent for NPR's Washington Desk. Before he came to NPR in 2019, Ordoñez covered the White House for McClatchy. He has also written about diplomatic affairs, foreign policy and immigration, and has been a correspondent in Cuba, Colombia, Mexico and Haiti.