The White House and the Kremlin announced only the second communication between the two since Biden took office in January, after Western officials urged Moscow to stop the buildup and Russia, in Cold War-style language, said its “adversary” should keep US warships far away from the Crimea zone.
Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, and violence has flared up in recent weeks in eastern Ukraine, where government troops have been fighting Russian-backed rebels in a seven-year war that Kiev claims has killed 14,000 civilians.
Concerned about the Ukraine crisis spiralling out of reach, Biden called Putin to suggest they meet in a third region, thus emphasising the US commitment to Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.
“President 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 White House said in a statement.
“The president voiced our concerns over the sudden Russian military build-up in occupied Crimea and on Ukraine’s borders, and called on Russia to de-escalate tensions,” it said.
RUSSIA: BUILD-UP IS THREE-WEEK DRILL
Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said in the first public Russian explanation of the buildup that Moscow had transferred two armies and three paratrooper units to its western border as part of a massive snap exercise to assess battle readiness and react to what he called NATO’s provocative military action.
Shoigu said on state television that the three-week exercise, which he called a victory, would be completed in the next two weeks.
NATO, according to Shoigu, is stationing 40,000 soldiers and 15,000 pieces of military equipment along Russia’s borders, mostly in the Black Sea and Baltic areas.
Any such proposals are denied by the Western alliance.
“We know Russia’s capacity,” a top US State Department official told reporters. This massive military buildup… to take offensive steps, but we don’t know what their motives are, obviously,” the official said.
After the annexation of Crimea, Russia has repeatedly accused NATO of destabilising Europe with troop reinforcements in the Baltics and Poland.
BIDEN’S GOALS FOR SUMMIT
According to the statement, Biden also reaffirmed his intention of developing a “stable and predictable relationship” with Russia and stated that a meeting in the coming months could discuss “the full range of issues” confronting the two world powers.
According to the Kremlin’s version of the call, Biden told Putin that he wanted to normalise relations and collaborate on weapons control, Iran’s nuclear arsenal, Afghanistan, and climate change. It confirmed Biden’s proposal for a high-level meeting but did not say how Putin reacted.
During talks on the crisis in Brussels with NATO representatives and Ukraine’s foreign minister, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken repeated the White House message.
Blinken also said that he would address Kyiv’s plans to join NATO in the future, despite the fact that France and Germany have long been concerned that having the former Soviet republic into the Western alliance would antagonise Russia.
“The United States is our adversary and does everything it can to undermine Russia’s position on the world stage,” Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov was quoted as saying by Russian news agencies on Tuesday.
His comments indicate that the political niceties that the old Cold War adversaries have traditionally tended to observe in recent decades are fraying, and that Russia will vigorously oppose what it considers unacceptable U.S. intervention in its geographical sphere of influence.
According to Andrew Weiss, a Russia researcher at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Biden’s conversation with Putin reflected US concern about Ukraine and a willingness to collaborate with Russia on issues where they could have mutual interests.
“There’s an urgent need to send a signal directly to Putin that what Russia is doing in and around Ukraine is dangerous and destabilizing, even as other parts of the administration try not to foreclose cooperation on issues such as the Iran nuclear deal, Afghanistan, climate change and strategic stability.”
Two US warships are scheduled to arrive in the Black Sea this week in reaction to what US and NATO officials believe is the highest concentration of Russian forces – including thousands of combat-ready soldiers – since Moscow took Crimea from Ukraine.
“We warn the United States that they should stay away from Crimea and our Black Sea coast,” Ryabkov said. “It will be for their benefit. He described the US deployment as a provocation intended to put Russian nerves to the test.
Blinken met Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba in Brussels after the Group of Seven foreign ministers condemned Russia’s unexplained troop increase.
Echoing NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, who met Kuleba earlier, Blinken said Moscow’s military actions on Ukraine’s doorstep were “very provocative”.
“Russia must end this military build-up in and around Ukraine, stop its provocations and de-escalate immediately,” Stoltenberg said at a news conference with Kuleba.
Kyiv has supported the demonstration of Western assistance, but it stops short of Ukraine’s demand for full NATO membership.
Kuleba said that Kyiv desired a diplomatic solution, but he also called for further economic sanctions against Moscow and increased military assistance to Ukraine.
Separately, two diplomats said Stoltenberg would host a video conference on Wednesday with allied military and foreign ministers. According to the diplomats, Blinken and US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin were to be present at NATO headquarters to brief the other 29 allies on Ukraine as well as Afghanistan.