The spectre of fresh hostilities has raised the stakes for Joe Biden’s attempts to contain Vladimir Putin’s geopolitical ambitions © Peter Klaunzer/Pool/Getty
Western powers have presented a united front on the eve of a phone call between Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin, when the US president is expected to detail punitive measures that would inflict “severe” damage to Russia’s economy if the country invades Ukraine.
The US president hosted consultations with the leaders of France, Germany, Italy and the UK on Monday, during which they “discussed their shared concern about the Russian military build-up on Ukraine’s borders”, according to a readout from the White House.
The Biden administration has accused Russia of preparing for a military incursion in Ukraine by amassing up to 175,000 troops at its border, in a potential deepening of a conflict that began with Moscow’s annexation of Crimea in 2014.
The White House said the leaders were calling “on Russia to de-escalate tensions and agreed that diplomacy . . . is the only way forward to resolve the conflict”.
A senior administration official said Biden had consulted European allies ahead of the call with Putin on Tuesday “to make sure he goes into that conversation with allied unity and strong transatlantic solidarity”.
“With respect to financial sanctions, 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,” added the official, who spoke ahead of Monday’s call between Biden and Washington’s European allies.
“We believe that we have a path forward that would involve substantial economic countermeasures by both the Europeans and the US that would impose significant and severe economic harm on the Russian economy, should they choose to proceed.”
An unclassified US intelligence document obtained by Reuters shows Russian military activity on the territory of Russia and Russian-annexed Crimea, close to the border with Ukraine © Reuters
However, the official added that the US was not planning “to end up in a circumstance in which the focus of our countermeasures is the direct use of American military force”.
Following the consultations on Monday, the Elysée Palace said French president Emmanuel Macron had discussed “the current tensions between Russia and Ukraine” with the other four leaders of the so-called Quint states.
“The five heads of state and government . . . expressed their determination that Ukraine’s sovereignty be respected and declared their commitment to act to maintain peace and security in Europe,” the French statement said.
Antony Blinken, US secretary of state, also spoke with Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine’s president, on Monday and reiterated Washington’s “unwavering support for Ukraine’s sovereignty . . . in the face of Russian aggression”, according to the state department.
The spectre of fresh hostilities in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region, where a conflict against Russian-backed separatists has killed more than 14,000 people, has raised the stakes for Biden’s attempts to contain Putin’s geopolitical ambitions.
“This may well be the last opportunity to move toward de-escalation,” said Samuel Charap, a Russia expert at the Rand Corporation, a US-based think-tank, of the call between Biden and Putin. “The stakes couldn’t be higher. Either it leads to a renewed diplomacy, or war becomes much more likely.”
A satellite image shows Russian troops gathered at Pogonovo training ground, not far from the Donbas region in Ukraine © Maxar Technologies/AP
In recent weeks, Putin has made it clear that he wanted legally binding security guarantees that Nato will not expand to Ukraine or deploy weapons there — and warned that the west would face consequences if it crossed Moscow’s “red lines”.
Biden’s team hopes to dissuade Putin from invading by trailing warnings of heavy penalties, working with allies on an unprecedented package of financial sanctions and developing military options to help Ukraine defend itself with additional weapons.
“Nothing will be resolved in the call, but it’s a critical opportunity to shape the Kremlin’s calculus,” said Andrea Kendall-Taylor, Biden’s former Russia director at the National Security Council.
The troop build-up was in part designed to dissuade hawkish elements of Ukraine’s government and armed forces from trying to quash separatists in Donbas by force, according to a former senior Russian official.
“Nobody wants to fight, but they want to say: ‘Don’t even think about it, or we will completely flatten you’,” the person added. “It’s about containment.”
Moscow has blamed the west for the tensions by funding the modernisation of Ukraine’s army and accused Nato of provoking it by adding new member states closer to Russia’s borders.
Russia wants a prospective deal over Ukraine to be legally binding after claiming the west reneged on assurances it gave to the USSR in its final years that Nato would not expand beyond the former East Germany.
The Kremlin may have already decided that it could weather whatever sanctions the US imposes, said Alexander Gabuev, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center.
The most severe measure possible — exclusion from the Swift banking system — would make it difficult for Europe to buy the oil and gas exports that provide much of the continent’s energy. Previous sanctions blacklisting most of Putin’s entourage had the unwanted effect of rallying cronies and oligarchs around the president, Gabuev said.
These oligarchs “are already under sanctions forever, so the west has no way to work with them”, Gabuev said. “That makes the troops on the Ukrainian border like Chekhov’s gun — if it’s hanging on the wall, then it’s going to go off.”
Additional reporting by Victor Mallet in Paris