Updated: December 7, 2021 10:41:29 am
Written by David E. Sanger and Eric Schmitt
President Joe Biden is expected to encourage diplomatic de-escalation over the conflict in Ukraine when he speaks to Russian President Vladimir Putin in a video meeting Tuesday. But Biden will warn Putin that if he orders the Russian forces poised at the border to invade Ukraine, Western allies may move to cut Russia off from the international financial system and seek direct sanctions on Putin’s closest associates, administration officials said.
The meeting, perhaps Biden’s highest-stakes leader-to-leader conversation since he took office more than 10 months ago, may set the course for Ukraine’s ability to remain a fully independent nation. In the month since Biden dispatched CIA Director William Burns to Moscow, Russian forces have encircled Ukraine on three sides and accelerated a cybercampaign and disinformation campaign to destabilize its government, according to American, European and intelligence officials.
Administration officials would not describe the new diplomatic offers in detail, but they appeared to be an effort to alleviate Putin’s supposed fear that Ukraine is posing a threat to Russia by allying too closely with the West, buying American arms and taking advice from US military officials.
But some of Biden’s aides are doubtful there is any diplomatic process they can offer Putin that would dissuade him from his fundamental goal of destabilizing President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s pro-Western government in Ukraine. Although the troop movements are easily visible on satellite images, Russia is already employing a familiar campaign of disinformation, cyberattacks and military intimidation to unseat the country’s leadership. The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss Tuesday’s call.
Burns was sent in part because he was the American ambassador to Moscow during Putin’s rise to power and is well known to Russian officials. But his warnings to the Russian leader, whom he reportedly spoke to by phone, appear to have been largely ignored, officials say.
A senior American official told reporters in a briefing Monday that the official US assessment is still that Putin has not decided whether to conduct a full-scale invasion. But Putin and Biden, officials say, come to Tuesday’s conversation, which both men signaled they wanted, with very different agendas.
White House officials have been gaming out a series of scenarios with Biden, including that Putin has demands that go well beyond the familiar one that Ukraine can never join NATO. They include a reorientation of Ukraine away from the West and back into Moscow’s orbit.
Biden must convince Putin that the administration’s commitment to Ukraine, which it has called “unshakable,” is deep enough to cause tremendous economic pain to Russia — even if, as both men know, American forces would not come directly to Ukraine’s aid.
Under discussion are steps as extreme as cutting off Russia’s access to the international financial settlement system, called SWIFT, and a series of restrictions on its banks such as those honed in the effort to impose sanctions on Iran.
Russian forces are already deployed in the northeast, the south and the west, suggesting that Putin is putting together all the elements of a combined ground, cyber and information warfare campaign. The moves have prompted emergency meetings from Brussels to Washington — which may have been precisely what Putin intended.
At the Pentagon on Monday, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin convened top military and civilian officials, including Gen. Mark Milley, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Gen. Tod Wolters, head of the military’s European Command, to discuss the Russian troop buildup. Officials said that there was an effort underway to send additional defensive weapons, including anti-tank Javelins, to Ukraine, but that they may be prepositioned outside the country to avoid giving Putin a pretext for military action.
Later Monday, Milley met virtually with his NATO military counterparts to discuss the crisis. Biden was also calling Zelenskyy before the meeting, and he spoke with French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke with Zelenskyy on Monday and “reiterated the United States’ unwavering support for Ukraine’s sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity in the face of Russian aggression,” a State Department spokesperson, Ned Price, said in a statement.
John Kirby, chief Pentagon spokesperson, declined to say whether the United States still had a small number of military advisers in Ukraine or whether the administration had decided to send additional military assistance to Ukraine.
But Kirby said the administration was focused on resolving the crisis through diplomatic measures.
“We don’t believe conflict is inevitable here,” he told reporters.
But other officials said they were already seeing heightened cyberaction, and some officials recalled that Russia cut off the electric power to two parts of Ukraine in past years — and most likely had the capability for further disruptions now.
Biden and Blinken, who traveled to a NATO meeting last week, have been working to convince European nations, starting with Germany, that a clear warning to Putin is needed. The effort is to present Putin with a united front, and persuade him that the sanctions he would suffer would be widely enforced.
But many European officials are clearly worried that Putin could respond to pressure by diminishing gas supplies to Europe as winter approaches.
Some administration officials believe that Putin views Biden as distracted, focused on COVID-19 at home and China abroad. He may see his chance to reconstitute pieces of the old Soviet Union, they fear, at a moment when Germany is changing leadership and France is facing an election. Inside the administration, there is concern Putin may try to use Belarus, whose leader is clinging to power and appears increasingly aligned with Putin, as a pathway to move against Kyiv.
Putin’s spokesperson, Dmitri Peskov, on Monday dismissed warnings of a possible Russian invasion of Ukraine as “aggressive and hostile rhetoric” by the West.
He said the Kremlin was expecting to hear “concrete proposals” on Ukraine from Biden during Tuesday’s meeting. Putin has demanded “long-term security guarantees” for Russia in Eastern Europe, such as a pledge to roll back Western military cooperation with Ukraine.
“President Putin will listen to those proposals with great interest, and it will be possible to understand how much they are able to reduce tensions,” Peskov said on Russian state television Monday, according to the Interfax news agency.
Peskov appeared on television from New Delhi, where Putin was holding talks with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi — a visit that served as a reminder of Russia’s efforts to build relationships around the world even as ties have worsened with the West. Peskov said that despite the flaring tensions over Ukraine, there was still some positive momentum in the relationship with Washington, with talks between American and Russian officials on matters such as arms control and cybersecurity gaining pace in recent months.
“Although our bilateral relations remain in a very lamentable state, they have nonetheless begun reviving in some areas, and dialogue is starting,” Peskov said.
Administration officials said there would be at least three other major items on the agenda of the video meeting Tuesday: a follow-up on the cyberissues that dominated the summit of the two men in June, “strategic stability” talks about American and Russian moves in nuclear weapons and in space, and the effort to get Iran back into the 2015 nuclear deal.
But it is Ukraine — and the effort by the two men to divine each other’s intentions — that will dominate the session.
A declassified assessment disclosed by the Biden administration late last week, in an effort to shore up opposition inside Russia to Putin’s plans, suggested that by January, he may have as many as 175,000 troops on the border — up from roughly 100,000 now. But some military and intelligence officials believe that the figure may go higher, as Putin distributes his forces in a way to suggest he could try a three-sided “pincer” invasion of the country.
In the briefing for reporters, the senior administration official also said there had been a “significant spike in social media pushing Russian propaganda” that followed the pattern of Russian actions in 2014, just before the invasion and annexation of Crimea.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.