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Biden, Putin set for Ukraine call

WASHINGTON/MOSCOW — US President Joseph R. Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday were set to hold a high-stakes video conference call that Mr. Biden was expected to use to try to dissuade Moscow from invading Ukraine, where thousands of troops are massed near the border.

Ahead of his first direct talks with Mr. Putin since July, Mr. Biden consulted with European allies on Monday to discuss plans for sanctions against Russia and seek a strong allied stance in support of Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty.

Mr. Biden spoke to French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi, and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

They called on Russia to de-escalate tensions and return to diplomacy and said their teams will stay in close touch, including in consultation with NATO allies and EU partners, on a “coordinated and comprehensive approach,” the White House said.

Mr. Biden’s team has identified a set of economic penalties to impose should Russia launch an invasion, a senior Biden administration official said.

A separate source familiar with the situation said targeting Mr. Putin’s inner circle has been discussed but no decision had been made. Sanctions against Russia’s biggest banks and the ability to convert rubles into dollars and other currencies were also being considered, another source said.

White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said it remained unclear whether Mr. Putin had made a final decision to invade Ukraine.

The secure video call, with Mr. Biden speaking from the White House Situation Room, was expected to occur at about 1500 GMT on Tuesday.

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 building up its own forces in its east, where Russian-backed separatists control a large part of Ukrainian territory.

The senior Biden administration official said Mr. Biden would warn Mr. Putin of severe economic penalties if he launches a war.

The United States has urged both countries to return to a set of agreements signed in 2014 and 2015 and designed to end a separatist war by Russian-speakers in eastern Ukraine.

“He 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 official told reporters.

The two leaders head into the talks with scant room for compromise. In Moscow, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said the talks would focus on what Russia regards as NATO’s creeping expansion towards its borders, as well as long-term security guarantees for Russia.

Mr. 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.

Mr. Putin was expected to raise the possibility of holding another US-Russia summit with Mr. Biden too. They last spoke by phone in July and men met face-to-face at a summit in June in Geneva.

“Of course it (the agenda) is bilateral relations, which remain in quite a lamentable state,” Mr. Peskov told reporters. “And then it’s the questions that loom large on the agenda. Primarily tension around Ukraine, the theme of NATO advancement towards our borders, and President Putin’s initiative about security guarantees.”

International tensions have risen steadily over Ukraine and the Black Sea region. Russia’s Defense Ministry said on Friday it had scrambled fighter jets to escort two US military reconnaissance planes over the Black Sea.

On Monday, US General Mark Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, met virtually with all the NATO chiefs of defense about “significant security developments across Europe.”

At the United Nations, spokesman Stephane Dujarric told reporters on Monday the meeting between Mr. Biden and Mr. Putin “is extremely important, given the current context of what we see going on in many parts of the world.” — Reuters

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