Biden confronts Putin over Ukraine in high-stakes meeting

Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz

(WASHINGTON) — President Joe Biden told Russian President Vladimir Putin during a video meeting on Tuesday that the United States “would respond with strong economic and other measures in the event of military escalation,” as Russia builds up its forces on its border with Ukraine.

“President 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,” the White House said in a statement following the call, which the White House said lasted two hours and one minute.

Biden, the White House said, “reiterated his support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and called for de-escalation and a return to diplomacy.”

The call started at 10:07 a.m., according to the White House, and Russian TV showed Putin sitting at a long, wooden table looking at Biden on a TV monitor and the two men waving at each other.

“Welcome, Mr. President,” Putin said.

“Hello. Good to see you again,” Biden replied. “Unfortunately, last time we did not get to see each other at the G-20. I hope next time we meet we do it in person.”

Putin spoke from his residence in the Russian resort city Sochi. Biden was in the White House Situation Room; the White House released a photograph showing him seated with Secretary of State Antony Blinken, U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan and other advisors.

During the meeting, the first conversation between the leaders since July, Biden planned to threaten “substantial economic countermeasures” if Russia prepared to proceed with a military invasion, a senior Biden administration official said Monday.

“What I am doing is putting together what I believe to be–will be the most comprehensive and meaningful set of initiatives to make it very, very difficult for Mr. Putin to go ahead and do what people are worried he may do,” Biden told ABC News White House correspondent MaryAlice Parks on Friday.

After his call with Putin, the White House said, Biden planned to speak with France’s President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi.

The leaders had spoken the day before, after which the White House said they “called on Russia to de-escalate tensions”; agreed that diplomacy” was “the only way forward”; and “underscored their support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

The senior administration official said the U.S. was watching a series of events unfold similar to the lead-up to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2014, when it annexed the Crimean Peninsula. That included moving troops to its border with Ukraine coupled with a “significant spike” in anti-Ukrainian propaganda on social media, the official said.

But, according to the official, the U.S. had not determined whether Putin had decided yet if he would attack.

“We do not know or have a clear indication that President Putin has actually made an–given an affirmative order here,” the official said in a call with reporters. “It is more about planning intentions and then the kinds of movements that we have seen.”

Ahead of the call, both the White House and Kremlin sought to lower expectations.

“It is very important not to have some overexcited, emotional expectations here,” Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told Russia’s Channel One on Monday.

Asked by ABC News White House correspondent Karen Travers if the White House’s message was also to not have high expectations, White House press secretary Jen Psaki replied, “I think it is.”

“The president is not going to hold back in conveying his concern,” Psaki told another reporter.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said Monday that Russia’s “escalation” was “an immediate threat.”

“The stakes for the president’s call couldn’t be clearer,” McConnell said during remarks on the Senate floor.

In addition to Ukraine, Biden also spoken about strategic stability, ransomware and “joint work on regional issues such as Iran,” the White House said.

The White House has made clear the U.S. is ready to support allies in the region if Russia decides to move forward with a military invasion in Ukraine.

“I think you could anticipate that in the event of an invasion, the need to reinforce the confidence and reassurance of our NATO allies and our eastern flank allies would be real, and the United States would be prepared to provide that kind of reassurance,” the senior official said Monday. “That’s just sort of applying the lessons of 2014 to 2021.”

Notably, the official wouldn’t specify whether that “reassurance” would come in the form of sanctions, U.S. forces, capabilities, or all of the above, nor what the hair trigger is for the support.

The official wouldn’t go so far as to say outright that Biden would warn Putin the U.S. military could be used if the Russian military moves into Ukraine.

After Russia invaded the Crimean Peninsula in 2014, the U.S. and the European Union leveled economic sanctions against Russia, and Russia was kicked out of the “Group of Eight” industrialized nations.

The United States also sent 600 troops to eastern Europe in a show of solidarity with Baltic nations on Russia’s border. That deployment has morphed into a rotating set of relatively small U.S. deployments to eastern European nations.

“I don’t want to use a public press call to talk about the particular sensitive challenges that President Biden will lay out for President Putin,” the official said of Tuesday’s call. “But I would say that the United States is not seeking to end up in a circumstance in which the focus of our countermeasures is the direct use of American military force, as opposed to a combination of support for the Ukrainian military, strong economic countermeasures, and substantial increase in support and capability to our NATO allies to ensure they remain safe.”

In short: Biden will “make clear that there will be very real cost should Russia choose to proceed, but he will also make clear that there is an effective way forward with respect to diplomacy,” the official said.

The administration’s preferred option for response to any Russian aggression would be a series of economic sanctions in concert with European partners, and the official warned those would be “severe.”

“We believe that we have a path forward that would involve substantial economic countermeasures by both the Europeans and the United States that would impose significant and severe economic harm on the Russian economy, should they choose to proceed. I’m not going to get into the specific details of that, but we believe that there is a way forward here that will allow us to send a clear message to Russia, that there will be genuine and meaningful and enduring costs to choosing to go forward should they choose to go forward with a military escalation in Ukraine,” the official warned.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke with Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on Monday ahead of Biden’s call with Putin, and Zelensky tweeted that he had “agreed positions” with Blinken.

“Grateful to strategic partners & allies for the continued support of our sovereignty & territorial integrity,” Zelensky wrote.

Biden himself will call Zelenskyy to provide a readout of his conversation with Putin afterward, the official said.

ABC News’ Benjamin Siegel, Tanya Stukalova, Patrick Reevell and Trish Turner contributed to this report.

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