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Biden warns Putin against invading Ukraine

The American president tried to defuse tensions over Ukraine in a high-stakes video summit with his Russian counterpart. The White House is warning Moscow of severe economic repercussions if it invades Ukraine.

(CN) — In high-stakes talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday, U.S. President Joe Biden threatened to strike Russia with crushing economic sanctions if it moves to invade Ukraine.

The two leaders spoke by a secure video link in an effort to de-escalate tensions over a Russian military buildup on the borders with Ukraine. Biden spoke from the Situation Room in the White House and Putin from the presidential residence in Sochi.

Tuesday's private talk lasted for about two hours. Russia media released a video clip of the two presidents warmly greeting each other, but the rest of the discussion was not broadcast. Both sides were expected to release details about the talks later Tuesday, but neither leader was due to speak publicly.

Speaking at a White House news conference Tuesday afternoon, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said Biden "told President Putin directly that if Russia further invades Ukraine, the United States and our European allies would respond with strong economic measures."

Sullivan added that Biden laid out a road map for de-escalation and diplomacy, but warned the Russian leader that the United States will provide additional defense materials to Ukraine and fortify its allies in the Baltic if Russia decides to invade.

While Sullivan declined to provide specifics on additional measures Biden told Putin the U.S. was willing to take, he said the president wants to avoid a repeat of the 2014 sanctions which did not deter Russia from invading Crimea.

"I will look you in the eye and tell you as President Biden looked President Putin in the eye and told him today, that things we did not do in 2014, we are prepared to do now," Sullivan said. 

Going into the summit, both sides said they want to see talks to resolve the territorial dispute in Ukraine resume. For the past seven years, Ukrainian forces have been fighting pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine's eastern Donbas regions. But a ceasefire deal, known as the Minsk II, has failed as both sides trade accusations of breaching the agreement. More than 14,000 people have been killed in the smoldering conflict and about 1.5 million displaced.

The U.S. accuses Putin of planning an imminent invasion of Ukraine, something the Kremlin denies. U.S. and Ukrainian intelligence officials say more than 90,000 Russian troops, tanks and heavy artillery have been amassed near the border with Ukraine.

The hastily arranged video meeting with Putin was seen as a major test for Biden both in Europe and in the U.S. following the disastrous military withdrawal from Afghanistan.

"The question here is not about whether or not the United States is going to send American service members to the territory of NATO allies, we do that as a matter of course. The question is what additional capabilities can we provide to ensure that they feel strong and confident in their own sovereignty and territorial integrity," Sullivan said.

Prior to the virtual summit, U.S. media reported that the White House is considering cutting off Russia from the international financial system if it strikes Ukraine. European countries in particular could be hurt by sanctions against Russia due to their reliance on Russian gas and deep business ties.

While denying any intention to invade Ukraine, Putin recently demanded from NATO a firm and legally binding commitment to not allow Ukraine to join the military alliance. Putin called Ukraine's admission into NATO a “red line” for Moscow and warned NATO to stop arming Ukraine.

The U.S. has provided Ukraine with about $2.5 billion to arm itself since Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 following the overthrow of a pro-Russian government in Kyiv. NATO warships and airplanes have become more active in the Black Sea and along Russia's borders, prompting more warnings from Moscow.

Biden has said the U.S. will not be constrained by any red lines set by the Kremlin and that it is not for Moscow but Kyiv to decide whether Ukraine seeks NATO membership.

In Moscow, the eastward expansion of NATO is seen as Russia's biggest threat. Some in Washington, too, have voiced concerns that NATO's enlargement spoils relations with Russia.

Since the late 1990s, Russia has seen most former Soviet allies absorbed into the NATO security bloc. The alliance now includes Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Albania, Croatia, Montenegro and North Macedonia, bringing NATO’s total membership to 30 nations.

A key principle of the NATO alliance is that membership is open to any qualifying country, and no outsider has membership veto power. While there’s little prospect that Ukraine would be invited into the alliance anytime soon, the U.S. and its allies won’t rule it out.

During his first presidential trip in June, Biden met Putin at a summit in Geneva where the two leaders agreed to open discussions on arms control, cyber security and avoiding conflicts in the Arctic.

Relations between the Russia and the U.S. are at their lowest in years and fears are growing of a new Cold War emerging between the U.S. and its allies and Russia and China.

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

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