US President Joe Biden and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin agree that principles of international law will play a key role in determining how their tensely coiled diplomatic relations will unfold. But statements released by the White House and the Kremlin projected differing views of what took place during bilateral talks Thursday on the latest Ukrainian border troop buildups and ongoing strategic stability initiatives.
In early December, reports began to emerge that for the second time in 2021, that some 100,000 Russian troops were amassing along Ukraine’s border, along with aviation and other military equipment. Kyiv and Moscow have remained at diplomatic odds since 2013-2014, when a revolution ousted Kremlin-friendly leader Viktor Yanukovych, and ushered in a new era of governance. The most recent troop buildup has occurred against the backdrop of stalled bilateral talks between Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Earlier this week, in announcing that the call would take place, the White House noted that Biden’s administration had engaged in extensive diplomacy with its European allies to develop a common approach to the Russia-Ukraine border situation.
From the perspective of the White House, Biden took a hard line during the call on the latest Russian troop buildups, urging Putin to de-escalate tensions with Ukraine, and “made clear that the United States and its allies and partners will respond decisively if Russia further invades Ukraine.” The nature of the threatened response was not made clear in the US statement; however, in recent years, the US and its allies have relied on a sprawling series of sanctions targeting Russian companies and individuals to illustrate dissatisfaction with such policies as the country’s 2014 annexation of Crimea. The Russian statement released after the phone call stated that “Biden emphasized… that Washington had no intention of deploying offensive strike weapons in Ukraine,” but mentioned the threat of “large-scale” sanctions.
From the Kremlin perspective, Putin appears to have taken the lead, pressing Biden to launch negotiations on legally binding security guarantees as part of an ongoing strategic stability dialogue, and giving the American president a lesson on the fundamentals of relevant draft security treaties. “[Putin] stressed that the negotiations needed to produce solid legally binding guarantees ruling out NATO’s eastward expansion and the deployment of weapons that threaten Russia in the immediate vicinity of its borders… [and] further emphasized that the security of any nation cannot be ensured unless the principle of indivisible security is strictly observed,” according to the Russian press release.
Though both presidents appeared intent on projecting strength and control, they each nodded to the other’s emphases as secondary matters in their own statements.
After emphasizing American red lines, the White House noted that Biden also expressed support for diplomacy, and a readiness to engage in strategic security talks, albeit noting that “these dialogues can occur only in an environment of de-escalation.”
Referring to Biden’s hard line on Ukraine, the Kremlin statement said: “Vladimir Putin gave an exhaustive response to the mention once again by [Biden] of the possibility of imposing ‘large-scale’ sanctions in the event of an escalation of the situation around Ukraine. He suggested that this would be a grave error, de facto fraught with the danger of a complete breakdown in Russia-US relations.”
Differing interpretations of lessons learned aside, the former Cold War adversaries are set to continue strategic stability talks in the new year, with bilateral negotiations scheduled for January 9-10 in Geneva.
Zelenskyy, meanwhile, tweeted out a reminder that Ukrainian input should feature in any geopolitical angling involving the country. “As we have agreed with our Strategic Partner [the US], nothing about [Ukraine] without [Ukraine]. Look forward to talking again with [Biden] this Sunday to coordinate our steps for the sake of peace in Ukraine and security in Europe,” he wrote.