President Joe Biden on Tuesday warned Russian President Vladimir Putin that the United States and European allies would join together to impose “strong” economic penalties and other punitive actions on Russia should it mount an invasion of Ukraine.
In a highly anticipated secure video call, Biden “voiced the deep concerns of the United States and our European Allies about Russia’s escalation of forces surrounding Ukraine and made clear that the U.S. and our Allies would respond with strong economic and other measures in the event of military escalation,” according to a White House readout.
Biden also “reiterated his support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and called for de-escalation and a return to diplomacy,” the White House said. The two leaders “tasked their teams to follow up, and the U.S. will do so in close coordination with allies and partners.”
Biden is scheduled to convene a call on Tuesday afternoon with French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, according to the White House — following up on a conversation the leaders had on Monday in advance of Biden’s call with Putin. Biden also is expected to speak with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in the near future.
The call between the American president and his Russian counterpart, which lasted just over two hours, represented the culmination of weeks of repeated warnings by Washington to Moscow. Ahead of the leader-level conversation, international concerns about a potential invasion of Ukraine reached heights not seen since 2014 — when Russia last breached the neighboring nation’s eastern border and annexed Crimea.
“This looks very familiar. It looks like a replay of 2014,” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said in an interview with Defense One on Tuesday. He added: “Because we’ve seen this before — we saw what the outcome was — we remain concerned. I think we’re going to continue to work with our partners and allies to make sure that we’re looking ahead here.”
The Washington Post reported last Friday that the U.S. intelligence community suspects Russia is planning a multi-front offensive involving up to 175,000 troops that could take place as soon as early next year. On Tuesday, CNN reported that the United States is exploring options for a potential evacuation of American citizens from Ukraine if Russia invades.
U.S. officials are still working with international partners “to ensure that we convey to Russia that this is a really bad idea,” Austin said on Tuesday of a potential invasion, but “until something actually happens, I always believe that there’s a chance to resolve it in ways other than force.”
Pressed on the possibility of issuing a “red line” warning to Russia — by communicating that an invasion of Ukraine would trigger U.S. military involvement — Austin responded that “in situations like this, I think conveying red lines only exacerbates the problem.”
Prior to Tuesday, the most recent, known substantive talks between Biden and Putin was at their summit in Geneva in June, and their latest call follows a face-to-face session last Thursday between Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Stockholm. After that meeting of the two nations’ top diplomats, Blinken told reporters he warned Lavrov of “severe costs and consequences on Russia if it takes further aggressive action against Ukraine.”
The U.S. threats escalated on Monday, when a senior administration official warned that the United States was coordinating with European allies on a package of financial sanctions that would impose “significant and severe economic harm on the Russian economy” should Putin proceed with an invasion.
“We have had intensive discussions with our European partners about what we would do collectively in the event of a major Russian military escalation in Ukraine, and we believe that we have a path forward that would involve substantial economic countermeasures by both the Europeans and the United States,” the senior administration official told reporters in a call organized by the National Security Council.
Later Monday — in preparation for his conversation with Putin — Biden participated in a call with Macron, Merkel, Draghi and Johnson, during which they urged Russia “to de-escalate tensions” and advocated for a diplomatic solution, according to a White House readout.
The leaders also “agreed that their teams will stay in close touch, including in consultation with NATO allies and EU partners, on a coordinated and comprehensive approach,” the White House added — but there was no mention in the readout of the potential sanctions that the senior administration official referenced in the call with reporters earlier in the day.
Meanwhile, Blinken spoke by phone on Monday with Zelensky, reiterating the United States’ “unwavering support” for the Eastern European nation’s “sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity in the face of Russian aggression,” according to a State Department readout. Biden will speak with Zelensky in the coming days, the senior administration official told reporters.
Previewing the Putin call on Monday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said at a news briefing that Biden would not “hold back in conveying his concern” to the Russian president, and that Biden planned on “conveying our conversations and our preparations, should they be warranted.”
U.S. officials’ primary objective “is, of course, to prevent [Russia] from moving forward” with an invasion, Psaki said, as well as “to convey on the front end that we have been working in lockstep and in coordination with Congress, with countries, our NATO partners, with transatlantic partners to prepare a range of steps that could be detrimental to their economy.”
Psaki also underscored U.S. officials’ uncertainty about Putin’s commitment to crossing the Russia-Ukraine border, telling reporters: “We don’t know that President Putin has made a decision. We don’t know that yet. But that’s why this is an opportunity to have a conversation.”
At the Pentagon, spokesperson John Kirby said at a news briefing on Monday that Austin met earlier in the day with department leaders — including Joint Chiefs Chair Gen. Mark Milley and Gen. Tod Wolters, commander of U.S. European Command — to discuss the situation on the Russia-Ukraine border.
“I won’t get into intelligence assessments, but [Austin] is staying very keenly and closely informed by senior military and policy leaders here at the department about what we continue to see,” Kirby said, telling reporters that Pentagon officials are monitoring “added military capability” by Putin in western Russia, near Ukraine.