WASHINGTON, D.C. — American President Joseph Biden spelled out this week to his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, the consequences if Moscow launched a fresh invasion of Ukraine.
He warned that the penalties would be much more severe compared to Washington’s delayed and tepid reaction when Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014.
U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, who sat in on the meeting, told journalists “President Biden looked Putin in the eye and told him today, that things we did not do in 2014 we are prepared to do now.”
The two leaders talked for two hours in a “virtual” video summit on Tuesday (Dec.7).
The main topic was the massive buildup, for weeks, of an estimated 94 ,000 Russian troops around Ukraine’s borders, which many fear is a precursor to another Kremlin invasion.
Photographs from American and other intelligence reports show huge arrays of Russian tanks, other armored vehicles, missile carriers and artillery close to Ukraine’s eastern and southern borders. Russian forces have held massive “exercises” twice this year in Belarus, on Ukraine’s northwestern frontier, and they left much of the equipment in place after the maneuvers supposedly ended.
The pro-Putin Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko has made clear that the Kremlin can use his country as a launchpad for aggression against Ukraine.
Other regular Russian military units, helicopters, warplanes, and landing craft are parked in occupied Crimea – perfectly deployed to erupt into Ukraine’s mainland.
Russia invaded and annexed Crimea in 2014 and its regular troops and “separatist” proxies, created, financed and controlled by Moscow, occupied a large swath of territory in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region.
After intense warfare in 2014 and 2015 with 14,000 dead, a flawed ceasefire muted but never ended the fighting, which yields an unrelenting toll of deaths and injuries.
Biden wanted to supply lethal weapons in 2014
Biden was vice-president to Barack Obama, the U.S. leader when Russia invaded in 2014. Obama was criticized for failing to supply weapons for Ukraine’s defense because he feared it would “provoke” Putin to even greater aggression. He overrode Biden’s advocacy of lethal weapons for Kyiv.
Before becoming president in 2020, Biden pledged to increase military support, including supplies of lethal weapons, for Kyiv. His administration has indeed provided sufficient aid to infuriate Russia but not enough to prevent it menacing Ukraine.
A White House statement and a short press conference given by Sullivan gave only the bare outlines the meeting between the two leaders.
But it was clear that Biden was determined to convince Putin that the costs of further aggression against Ukraine would be far-reaching.
Sullivan said Biden, “reiterated support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity” and warned Putin that in case of an escalation of aggression, America “would provide additional defensive materiel to the Ukrainians, above and beyond that which we are already providing.”
Biden warned that the U.S and European allies would fiercely ramp up economic sanctions against Moscow.
Sullivan did not go into the details about measures America could adopt to punish Russia because he did not want “to telegraph our punches.”
Possible range of powerful economic sanctions
However, in the days before the meeting, U.S. officials and analysts suggested there could be new sanctions against members of Putin’s inner circle and severe economic measures.
Some of the punishments would likely hit large enterprises such as the Russian energy exporters who underpin the country’s otherwise primitive and parlous economy.
Other sanctions could be imposed to cripple Russia’s banks and fiscal institutions, including using the “nuclear option” of blocking Russia from the SWIFT international payment system essential for money transfers around the globe.
Sullivan suggested that the controversial Nord Stream 2 pipeline, bypassing the existing gas transit system across Ukraine, could be suspended if Russia attacks Ukraine.
He said gas is not currently flowing through NS2 “which means….. it’s leverage for the West because if Putin wants to see gas flowing through that pipeline he may not want to take the risk of invading Ukraine.”
Biden rejected Ukraine NATO membership veto Putin insists on
Before the Tuesday meeting Moscow had demanded assurances that Ukraine wouldn’t be allowed to join NATO.
Sullivan said Biden, “made no such commitments or concessions and stands by the proposition that countries should be able to freely choose who they associate with.”
Sullivan said that the two leaders held a real discussion with “a lot of give and take” rather than merely reciting prepared speeches.
The U.S. side did not say what proportion of the two hour meeting was about Ukraine but the Kremlin readout about the summit said the “predominant” focus was on Ukraine.
The two leaders also discussed other issues such as how to improve the functioning of their embassies in Moscow and Washington whose staff have been depleted by tit-for-tat expulsions of each other’s diplomats. How to come to a deal with Iran over its nuclear ambitions was also discussed.
The Kremlin called the meeting “frank and businesslike” but said it did not yield any breakthroughs.
In its account, Putin accused NATO of “making dangerous attempts to conquer Ukrainian territory” and “building up its military potential at our borders.” He blamed Ukraine for its “destructive stance” and “provocative actions” in Donbas.
The two leaders agreed that teams from their respective countries would continue discussions on issues addressed during the virtual summit.
Biden reported on the meeting to the leaders of Britain, France, Germany and Italy and was set to report to the leaders of both houses of the American Congress and to discuss bipartisan actions to defend U.S. interests and those of its partners.
Biden is due to speak to Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky on Thursday.
Some in Ukraine want stronger stance from U.S.
Some Ukrainian officials, speaking privately, although grateful for America’s support, made clear they had hoped for more emphatic language from Biden. They were disappointed because there was no unequivocal declaration by Biden to provide game-changing quantities of weapons without waiting for Moscow to first move against Ukraine.
Alluding to Biden’s warning that consequences for any fresh Russian invasion will be far harsher than in 2014, Michael Sawkiw, executive vice-president of America’s largest Ukrainian diaspora organisation, the Ukrainian Congress Committee of America, said: “The Ukrainian community since 2014 has consistently and rightfully called upon U.S. officials to enact severe ramifications for the Kremlin’s invading forces.
“The U.S. Congress has heard those appeals and have enacted bold and decisive legislative initiatives on an overwhelming bipartisan basis to many of its concerns and recently, the United States and Ukraine revitalized the Charter on Strategic Partnership.
Such an agreement should manifest itself by providing increased military training and those capabilities to truly defend its territory.
He said: “It’s a wonderful opportunity for America to demonstrate it understands that Ukraine is not only defending its own territorial integrity and independence but is actually defending all of Europe and its values and democratic principles.”