“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. “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.”
A White House statement released later on Monday after Biden held a call with his European counterparts, however, did not mention sanctions. The statement said Biden and the leaders of Italy, France, Germany and Britain agreed that diplomacy “is the only way forward to resolve the conflict in Donbas through the implementation of the Minsk Agreements.” They also called on Russia to “de-escalate tensions” and “underscored their support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity,” according to the statement.
A spokesperson for the U.K. government said Prime Minister Boris Johnson vowed during the call that his country would “continue to use all the economic and diplomatic tools at its disposal to prevent any Russian aggression against Ukraine,” and that the European leaders planned to speak again with Biden after the talks Tuesday with Putin.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke to President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine on Monday, and the Biden administration official said the U.S. president planned to speak with Zelensky himself “in the days following” the call with Putin.
Blinken’s spokesperson said the secretary agreed with Zelensky on “the need for a peaceful, diplomatic resolution to the conflict” and the full restoration of “Ukrainian sovereignty over its internationally recognized borders, including Crimea.”
The threat of a Russian invasion of Ukraine has ramped up over the past week, with the Washington Post first reporting last Friday that U.S. intelligence officials suspect Moscow is planning a multi-front offensive involving up to 175,000 troops that could take place as soon as early next year.
Meanwhile, U.S. officials have escalated their warnings that Washington will retaliate if Moscow moves its forces across the border into Ukraine, as it previously did in 2014.
Blinken, speaking last Wednesday at the conclusion of a North Atlantic Treaty Alliance meeting in Latvia, cautioned that the United States is “prepared to impose severe costs for further Russian aggression in Ukraine.”
“We’ve made it clear to the Kremlin that we will respond resolutely, including with a range of high-impact economic measures that we’ve refrained from using in the past,” Blinken said.
Last Thursday, Blinken met face-to-face with his Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, on the sidelines of a meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe last Thursday in Sweden.
Following that session, Blinken told reporters at a news conference that he “made very clear our deep concerns and our resolve to hold Russia responsible for its actions, including our commitment to work with European allies to impose severe costs and consequences on Russia if it takes further aggressive action against Ukraine.”
Then, last Friday, Blinken warned again in an interview with Reuters that “there will be very serious consequences” if Russia “engages in renewed aggression against Ukraine.”
Biden, for his part, told reporters last Friday that he has been in “constant contact” with the Ukrainian government and America’s European allies, adding that Blinken and national security adviser Jake Sullivan also have been “engaged extensively.”
“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 said. “But that’s in play right now.”
Announcing the plans for the Biden-Putin call last Saturday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said in a statement that the president would “underscore U.S. concerns with Russian military activities on the border with Ukraine and reaffirm the United States’ support for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine.”
Russia’s rhetoric has shifted in recent months from its years-long demand that Ukraine not be allowed to join NATO, to an objection to any NATO presence in Russia. American, British and Canadian troops currently train Ukrainian forces at a site in the far western corner of the country.
“I think it’s interesting that the Russian line is shifting,” British Ambassador to the United States Karen Piece told POLITICO. “Although when they went into Georgia in 2008, they didn’t use the ‘Georgia is getting too close to NATO’ argument. But they did use it once they were there.”
By arguing the NATO presence in Ukraine is a threat to Russia, Pierce said Putin “is laying out a narrative that he can use around the world if he so chooses. … He has the capabilities there. But Putin usually has more than one plan at any given moment. And he’s very good at dialing up and dialing down depending on our response.”
Paul McLeary and Emma Anderson contributed to this report.