(Bloomberg) -- President Joe Biden began a high-stakes call with Russian President Vladimir Putin, according to reports from Interfax and Tass, seeking to ease tensions that have spiked over Russia’s massing of troops along the border with Ukraine and fears of a possible invasion.
Putin and Biden began their video call around 10 a.m. Washington time on Tuesday, according to the reports. It’s their fourth direct conversation this year, following two calls and one summit in Geneva that was itself prompted by a Russian troop buildup near Ukraine.
This time, U.S. officials say their intelligence suggests Russia has drafted a plan for a military offensive against Ukraine as soon as early 2022 involving as many as 175,000 personnel along with armor, artillery and other equipment. U.S. intelligence has also detected an uptick in Russian propaganda targeting Ukraine, fueling speculation the Kremlin is readying an attack, according to a Biden administration official who requested anonymity to detail the intelligence assessments.
Biden intends to warn Putin in the call that an offensive against Ukraine would carry significant costs, including severe harm to Russia’s economy, a U.S. official said Monday.
The Kremlin says it doesn’t intend to invade and accuses the U.S. and its allies of expanding their military infrastructure into Ukraine in a way that Russia sees as threatening.
Biden Weighs Russian Bank Sanctions If Putin Invades Ukraine (1)
Before the talks, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov declined to comment on the reports of planned sanctions, saying the “emotional statements” of recent days wouldn’t affect the talks.
“It’s obvious that if the presidents are having this conversation, they intend to discuss the issues and not drive things into a dead end,” Peskov said on a conference call with reporters Tuesday, while warning against expecting breakthroughs.
If there is an attack on Ukraine, U.S. and European allies are weighing penalties that would target Russia’s largest banks and the country’s ability to convert rubles into foreign currencies, including the dollar. The U.S. is also mulling sanctions against Putin’s inner circle and Russian energy companies, CNN reported Monday.
While Russian officials have rejected suggestions that they are seeking to stoke a conflict, Putin has made clear that he views Western military support for Ukraine -- especially the possibility of greater integration with the NATO alliance -- as a “red line.” And Russian officials have accused the government in Kyiv of planning to attack Russia-backed separatists that Russia supports in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region.
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Before the call, the Kremlin said Putin would push his proposal for legally binding security guarantees that NATO wouldn’t expand further eastward and wouldn’t deploy offensive weapons in the region. White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki has said that Putin has no say in NATO’s membership.
Biden is expected to tell Putin that there would be benefits for his country if he decides against military action and instead pursues diplomacy, according to the senior U.S. official. And the U.S. president plans to press Putin on separate issues, including assistance reviving the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran and continued cyberattacks originating from Russia.
The tensions between the U.S. and Russia were evident in Stockholm last week, when Secretary of State Antony Blinken and his Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, got into a testy exchange at a private dinner with dozens of other officials over each side’s interpretation of who was to blame over the current state of affairs in Ukraine.
On Monday, Biden spoke with the leaders of France, Germany, Italy, and the United Kingdom in preparation for the call. He’s expected to speak with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy in the coming days to detail his discussion with Putin.
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