Biden faces high-stakes test in call with Putin over Ukraine
By Natasha Bertrand, CNN
(CNN) -- President Joe Biden is set for one of the most critical calls of his presidency on Tuesday with Russian President Vladimir Putin, as he gets stark warnings from the US intelligence community that Russia is preparing to invade Ukraine as soon as next month.
Amid "deep concern" about Russia's planning for "significant military action against Ukraine," the President will not entertain any of Putin's "red lines" on NATO expansion in Eastern Europe and will make clear that the US is prepared to respond to an invasion with sanctions and -- if needed -- additional troops in Europe to reassure nervous allies, a senior administration official told reporters on Monday.
The call comes nearly six months after Biden met Putin for the first time as president in Geneva, Switzerland, when he hoped to calm tensions by finding areas where the US and Russia could cooperate like cybersecurity and strategic arms control. The two men have a long history, and Biden has said explicitly he does not hold Putin in particularly high regard.
After a meeting with Putin in 2011, then-Vice President Biden said he looked into Putin's eyes and declared: "I don't think you have a soul." During an interview in March, Biden called Putin a killer, saying that the Russian leader "will pay a price" for his efforts to undermine the 2020 US election. And although the June summit was cordial, the Russian military's recent escalations show the meeting did not produce the kind of "stable and predictable" relationship the US was hoping for.
The relationship took a dramatic turn last month when US officials began to sound the alarm about irregular Russian military movements near the Ukraine border.
Russia has now amassed nearly 100,000 troops near the border, US Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville said last weekend, and has also erected supply lines in the area such as medical units and fuel that could sustain a drawn-out conflict, sources told CNN. A US intelligence assessment found that Russia could be preparing to invade as early as next month with as many as 175,000 troops from positions near Ukraine's southern, western, and northeastern borders.
Officials report a "significant spike" in Russian disinformation operations characterizing the Ukrainian government as illegitimate, and US officials have also shared with senior Ukrainian officials evidence that Russia -- through the FSB, Russia's successor to the KGB -- is engaging in destabilizing activities inside Ukraine to foment dissent against Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky's administration.
Senior administration officials say Biden -- who had the Ukraine portfolio as Barack Obama's vice president and has made half a dozen trips there -- is realistic about what he can achieve directly with Putin.
But in Biden's view, any conversation is better than silence, and he believes Putin responds to directness and strength. When he sits down in the White House's Situation Room on Tuesday to conduct the secure video call, he plans to lay out in detailed terms the ways Russia would be punished if an invasion goes forward.
Those penalties include "substantive economic countermeasures" meant to inflict "significant and severe economic harm on the Russian economy," the senior official said, in coordination with European allies.
In an exclusive interview with CNN's Matthew Chance, Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov urged Biden to stand firm against Moscow.
"If I can advise President Biden, I would like him to articulate to Mr. Putin that no red lines from the Kremlin side should be here. The red line is here in Ukraine and the civilized world will react without hesitation," Reznikov said.
"The idea of not provoking Russia will not work," he added.
Despite the military escalations, it is still unclear whether Putin has made a final decision to invade Ukraine, and some officials have speculated that the buildup could be a way for Russia to leverage concessions from the West. Putin is expected to demand Biden make a binding guarantee that will "exclude any further NATO expansion eastward and the deployment of weapons systems that would threaten us on the territories of neighboring countries, including Ukraine," Putin's foreign affairs adviser Yuri Ushakov told reporters last week.
Asked on Monday about Russia's demands for a binding pledge from NATO not to expand further east, however, the senior official said, "We don't think talk of red lines is helpful, and as the President has said, we're not going to operate according to that logic of accepting anyone's red lines."
Many US officials, meanwhile, believe Russia is just using discussions about NATO encroachment as an excuse to attack Ukraine, knowing that Biden and other western officials will not accept Putin's demands
"Our concern is that Russia may make a serious mistake of attempting to rehash what it undertook back in 2014, when it amassed forces along the border, crossed into sovereign Ukrainian territory and did so claiming falsely that it was provoked," Secretary of State Antony Blinken said earlier this month, referring to Russia's invasion of Crimea.
Blinken spoke to Zelensky on Monday and Biden will speak to Zelensky in the coming days to brief him on the call with Putin, the official said.
Weighing a response
The US and its European and NATO allies have been weighing a number of measures to deter a Russian attack, including sending military advisers and new weaponry to Ukraine. The US is also taking steps to plan for additional US troop deployments in Europe on NATO's eastern flank to help reassure allies of continued American support, the senior official said.
"I think you could anticipate that in the event of an invasion, the need to reinforce the confidence and reassurances of our NATO allies and our eastern flank allies would be real. And the United States would be prepared to provide that reassurance," this person said. "We are working through the prudent planning of what we would have to do in the event of such an escalation and how we would have to ensure the security of our NATO allies in that context."
"Aggressive" new sanctions against members of Putin's inner circle and on Russian energy producers are also being considered, people familiar with the discussions said. The new economic sanctions could target a variety of sectors, including energy producers, Russian banks and Russia's sovereign debt, the people said. There is also serious discussion underway about denying Russian energy producers from debt markets should they invade Ukraine, a senior US official told CNN.
"We have put together a pretty damn aggressive package," another senior US official said. This person added that the US has warned Russia that if it invades Ukraine the US and Europe together will impose the worst economic sanctions that have ever been imposed on a country, outside of Iran and North Korea.
Officials are also weighing cutting off Russia from the SWIFT international payment system should it move forward with an invasion, sources said, but that would be a "nuclear" option.
To some Ukrainians, the potential measures are not enough. An adviser to Zelensky told CNN that imposing sanctions only after Russia moves to invade would be futile, and that at least some penalties should be imposed preemptively to get Russia to back off.
"The view from Kyiv is that any prospective sanctions should Putin invade have already been factored in by Moscow and provide close to zero deterrence value," the adviser said. "However, the imposition of strong sanctions now — with roll back provisions built into them should Russia take real steps to de-escalate — have a chance to work."
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