WASHINGTON — Russian President Vladimir Putin said Wednesday that Moscow will submit its proposals for a security dialogue with the U.S. a week after his call with U.S. President Joe Biden amid Western concerns about a Russian military buildup near the Ukrainian border.
The Russian leader reaffirmed his denial of planning to attack Ukraine, but said that Moscow can’t remain indifferent to NATO’s possible expansion to its neighbor.
“Russia will prepare its arguments literally in a few days, within a week, and we will submit it to the American side for consideration,” he said, adding that he and Biden have agreed to “form a structure that would deal with it in a detailed and thorough way.”
He described the two-hour conversation with Biden in a video call Tuesday as “very open, specific and, I would say constructive.”
“We have an opportunity to continue this dialogue, which I think is the most important thing,” Putin told reporters after talks in Sochi with visiting Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis.
The leader-to-leader conversation — Biden speaking from the White House Situation Room, Putin from his residence in Sochi — was one of the most important of Biden’s presidency and came at a perilous time.
U.S. intelligence officials have determined that Russia has moved 70,000 troops near the Ukraine border and has made preparations for a possible invasion early next year. Moscow has denied any plans to attack Ukraine, rejecting Western concerns as part of a campaign to smear Russia.
Biden delivered a simple message to Putin: invade Ukraine again and face painful sanctions that will do resounding harm to your economy. The Russian president had his own blunt take, telling Biden that “the Russian troops are on their own territory, and they don’t threaten anyone,” according to Putin foreign policy adviser Yuri Ushakov.
Biden “told President Putin directly that if Russia further invades Ukraine, the United States and our European allies would respond with strong economic measures,” U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said.
Sullivan said the U.S. believes that Putin hasn’t yet made a final decision to invade. Biden was vice president in 2014 when Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and backed an insurgency in eastern Ukraine, which has killed more than 14,000 people and is still an active conflict.
White House officials made clear that Biden is not interested in putting U.S. troops in harm’s way defending Ukraine. But Sullivan noted that Biden said the U.S. would also “provide additional defensive material to the Ukrainians … and we would fortify our NATO allies on the eastern flank with additional capabilities in response to such an escalation.”
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Wednesday that “it was positive that the U.S. president spoke to the Russian president,” adding that he would comment in detail on Thursday, after his own phone call with Biden.
Asked Wednesday if Russia was going to attack Ukraine, Putin called the question provocative, saying that “Russia is conducting a peaceful foreign policy, but it has the right to ensure its security in the mid- and long-term perspective.”
The Russian president noted that “NATO, regrettably, has pursued a clearly confrontational course with respect to Russia,” adding that “we aren’t bracing up for confrontation with anyone.”
Putin entered the call looking for Western guarantees precluding NATO’s expansion to Ukraine, a demand that the U.S. and its NATO allies considered a non-starter.
Ushakov said Putin countered Biden’s expressions of concern about the Russian troop buildup near Ukraine by snapping: “You Americans are worried about Russian battalions on Russian territory thousands of miles away from the United States, while we are really worried about our security.”
As the U.S. and Russian presidents conferred, Ukraine grew only more anxious about a potential Russian attack, claiming that Russia has sent tanks and snipers to separatist-controlled areas in eastern Ukraine to “provoke return fire” and lay a pretext for a potential invasion.
U.S. intelligence officials haven’t been able to independently verify that accusation, according to an administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive matter.
Moscow has repeatedly denied Ukrainian and Western reports about the presence of its troops in eastern Ukraine.
With no immediate breakthrough on the Ukraine question, the U.S. emphasized a need for diplomacy and de-escalation, while issuing stern threats to Russia about the high costs of a military incursion.
A top U.S. envoy, Victoria Nuland, said a Russian invasion of Ukraine would also jeopardize a controversial pipeline between Russia and Germany known as Nord Stream 2. She told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday that if Russia invaded, “our expectation is that the pipeline will be suspended.”
Ushakov, Putin’s foreign policy aide, dismissed the sanctions threat, telling reporters after the call: “Sanctions aren’t something new. They have been in place for a long time and haven’t had any effect.”
The two leaders spoke on the 80th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, a defining moment that led to the U.S. entry in World War II. They commiserated about the cost of that conflict to their own families, Ushakov noted. Hours before the high-stakes call, Biden and first lady Jill Biden visited a war memorial in Washington to commemorate the anniversary.
On another matter, Putin proposed to lift all mutual restrictions on diplomatic missions and help normalize other aspects of bilateral relations, according to the Kremlin. Sullivan said the leaders would direct their staff to continue negotiations on that.
Aides say the annexation of Crimea — one of the darker moments for then-President Barack Obama on the international stage — looms large as Biden looks at the smoldering current crisis.
Biden’s Republican opponents in Washington are framing this moment as a key test of the president’s leadership on the global stage. Biden vowed as a candidate to reassert American leadership after President Donald Trump’s emphasis on an “America First” foreign policy.
There was at least one area where the two leaders found common ground during Tuesday’s call.
Sullivan said Biden and Putin had a “good discussion” on efforts to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power and called it an area where the two countries could cooperate.