Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin held a virtual summit on Tuesday but made little apparent headway in defusing the crisis over Ukraine in the wake of a Russian troop build-up, and instead delegated officials from both countries to stay in contact.
The two leaders talked by videoconference for just over two hours. The White House account of the call said that Biden had voiced “deep concerns” about the Russian military buildup around Ukraine and “made clear that the US and our Allies would respond with strong economic and other measures in the event of military escalation”.
The nature of the “other measures” was not spelled out but US officials have said the US would be open to requests from European allies to reinforce Nato’s eastern flank, if Russia invaded Ukraine, and would beef up Ukraine’s defence capabilities. Among the economic measures under consideration are a ban on the secondary market in Russian bonds, sanctions on major Russian corporations and banks, and possible expulsion from the international electronic payments system, Swift.
The US president restated his support for Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity, calling for de-escalation and a return to diplomacy.
The White House said that the two leaders had “tasked their teams to follow up” adding that the US would do so in coordination with allies and partners.
After the call, Biden spoke to the leaders of the UK, Germany, France and Italy by conference call. The president had consulted them on Monday, and the White House said they had agreed “to stay in close touch on a coordinated and comprehensive approach in response to Russia’s military build-up on Ukraine’s borders”.
Russia was unusually slow in delivering its version of the results of the talks on Tuesday. More than an hour after the talks ended, the Kremlin still had not published an official readout.
Putin before the talks greeted Biden informally, leaning back in his chair and waving at a television screen: “Hello, Mr President.” Russian television reported that the talks were held one-on-one without any aides other than interpreters.
Russian officials said that Putin would press Biden in order to force Kyiv to abide by the 2015 Minsk agreements, an agreement that both Russia and Ukraine have accused the other side of violating. “It looks like Kyiv won’t listen to anyone but the United States,” the Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, said ahead of the talks on Tuesday.
The agreement stipulates that Ukraine reform its constitution and open direct talks with Russian-backed separatists, both of which are extremely unpopular in Kyiv. Analysts called the requests non-starters.
Russia also said that Putin would press Biden on his “red lines”, including Kremlin opposition to both Ukraine’s entry into Nato or considerable cooperation between Kyiv and the military alliance.
“Russia isn’t going to attack anyone, but we have our own concerns and our own red lines. [Putin] has made them clear,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters before the talks.
Analysts said that Putin was prepared to use force in order to achieve his aims in Ukraine but that an offensive was not a foregone conclusion.
“Putin keeps raising the stakes quite intentionally in order to test the resilience of the west,” said Pavlo Klimkin, the former Ukrainian foreign minister, in an interview before the talks.
The meeting would likely produce only modest gains, such as an agreement to continue further talks, he said.
“If they agree to start talking bilaterally or within the Normandy format with a clear agenda, that would be a sign of deescalation,” said Klimkin. The Normandy format is a contact group of Russia, Ukraine, Germany and France, established to pursue negotiations on Ukraine in 2014.
At the same time, he said it was unlikely that Putin would order a quick drawdown of Russia’s forces massed at the borders.
“They will stay,” he said. “For the Russians it is important to start a discussion with the Americans and Europe on anything. On strategic stability on other issues. But also on so-called legal guarantees for Nato not to be further enlarged. This factor is very important with any dialogue with the United States. The forces will be put back [to base] only if he understands clearly that he lost or that he won. Otherwise not.”