On Tuesday, US President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin conducted a two-hour virtual meeting on Ukraine and other issues, amid Western worries that Moscow is preparing to attack its southern neighbor.
At the outset of what was supposed to be a contentious meeting, Russian TV video showed Biden and Putin greeting each other in a pleasant manner. Biden expressed optimism that their next encounter will be in person.
The White House published a statement stating that the conversations had begun, but did not provide any pictures from Biden’s protected ‘Situation Room.’
According to the White House, the two leaders spoke for two hours and one minute.
The Kremlin has said it hopes the two leaders can hold an in-person summit to discuss what it has described as the lamentable state of U.S.-Russia relations, which have sunk to their lowest since the end of the Cold War.
U.S. officials said before the video conference that Biden would tell Putin that Russia and its banks could be hit with the toughest economic sanctions yet if it attacks Ukraine.
They said the sanctions, which one source said could target Russia’s biggest banks and Moscow’s ability to convert rubles into dollars and other currencies, were designed to dissuade Putin from using tens of thousands of troops massed near the Ukrainian border to attack its southern neighbor.
The Kremlin, which said before Tuesday’s meeting it did not expect any breakthroughs, has denied harboring any intention to attack Ukraine and has said its troop posture is defensive.
But Moscow has voiced rising vexation over Western military aid to Ukraine, a fellow former Soviet republic that has tilted towards the West since a popular revolt toppled a pro-Russian president in 2014, and what it calls creeping NATO expansion.
Moscow has likewise questioned Ukrainian intentions and said it wants guarantees that Kyiv will not use force to try to retake territory lost in 2014 to Russia-backed separatists, a scenario Ukraine has ruled out.
“We’re looking for good, predictable relations with the United States. Russia has never intended to attack anyone, but we have our concerns and we have our red lines,” said Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov.
Leaders from Britain, the United States, France, Germany and Italy will hold a call at 1800 GMT following the Biden-Putin talks, the White House and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s office said.
The same allies spoke on Monday and “agreed to stay in close touch on a coordinated and comprehensive approach in response to Russia’s military build-up on Ukraine’s borders,” the White House said.
‘A COOL HEAD’
Peskov urged everyone to have “a calm head,” saying it was critical that Putin and Biden talk given Europe’s “dramatic increase of tensions.”
The Russian rouble fell marginally on Tuesday, with some market experts forecasting that the negotiations will de-escalate tensions and others claiming that the threat of US penalties had dashed chances of reaching an agreement.
According to a senior Biden administration source, Biden’s team has established a set of economic measures to impose if Russia launches an invasion.
According to a different person familiar with the matter, the possibility of targeting Putin’s close circle has been considered but no decision has been made. Sanctions against Russia’s largest banks, as well as restrictions on the conversion of roubles into dollars and other currencies, were also being examined, according to another source.
German Gref, the chief executive of Russia’s top bank Sberbank, on Tuesday called that idea “nonsense” and “impossible to execute”.
CNN reported sanctions could include the extreme step of disconnecting Russia from the SWIFT international payment system used by banks around the world.
Bloomberg reported that the United States and European allies were weighing measures targeting the Russian Direct Investment Fund. The United States could also restrict the ability of investors to buy Russian debt on the secondary market, Bloomberg said, citing people familiar with the matter.
Latvia’s foreign minister said in an interview in London on Tuesday that Moscow needed to know before it acted what “the economic price tag” would be, something he said should extend to Russia’s $11 billion Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline to Germany.
The White House declined to comment.
MORE EU SANCTIONS?
The European Union’s chief executive, Ursula von der Leyen, offered Ukraine the EU’s full support on Tuesday and said that the bloc would consider more sanctions on Russia.
Ukraine and NATO powers accuse Russia of building up troops near the border, sparking fears of a possible attack. Moscow denies any such plan and accuses Kyiv of massing its own forces in its east, where Russian-backed separatists control a large part of Ukrainian territory.
The United States has urged both countries to return to a set of largely unimplemented agreements signed in 2014 and 2015 which were designed to end the war in eastern Ukraine.
“He (Biden) will make clear that there will be very real costs should Russia choose to proceed, but he will also make clear that there is an effective way forward with respect to diplomacy,” the senior Biden administration told reporters.
Putin has said he wants legally binding guarantees NATO will not expand further eastwards and a pledge that certain types of weapons will not be deployed in countries close to Russia, including Ukraine.