(Update 1: changes headline; updates throughout)
Washington/Moscow, Dec 7 (EFE).- President Joe Biden warned his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, on Tuesday that the US will respond to a potential attack on Ukraine by Moscow by taking harsh economic measures that could include the “suspension” of energy shipments to Western Europe through a Russian pipeline, as well as strengthening NATO’s eastern flank.
That was the message the US leader delivered to the Kremlin chief during a two-hour virtual summit meeting focusing on Western apprehensions that Russian troop movements along the border with Ukraine might be the prelude to a massive attack on that country by Moscow.
“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,” said US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan at a press conference after the call.
Biden’s adviser was referring to the response of the US and its European allies to the Russian invasion – and later “annexation” – of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014, a response that consisted above all of imposing economic sanctions on Russia but did not include providing “lethal” military aid to Kiev.
The US and Ukraine believe that Russia is preparing for a massive military incursion into Ukrainian territory that could come in early 2022 – when the ground has frozen hard enough for tank traffic – and for which the Kremlin has deployed between 70,000 and 94,000 troops along its border with Ukraine, according to US intelligence estimates cited by local media outlets.
Those Russian military forces poised on its border with Ukraine are “much larger and on a much more lethal scale” than the forces deployed in 2014 for the Crimea invasion, Undersecretary of State Victoria Nuland said at a US Senate hearing on Tuesday.
During the virtual summit, Sullivan said, Biden was “direct and straightforward” about the measures that the US will take if Putin undertakes a military incursion into Ukraine, adding that the president made clear that he will not hesitate to send additional defensive equipment and resources to Ukraine beyond what Washington is already providing, and he would also look to deploy additional forces to strengthen NATO nations in the region if Russia invades.
Those NATO nations would include Romania and Poland, Sullivan told reporters after the meeting, adding that “There was a lot of give and take. There was no finger-wagging, but the president was crystal clear about where the United States stands on all of these issues.”
On the economic front, Biden warned Putin of the tough economic sanctions that the US and its European allies will impose on Russia and the White House said that the future of Russia’s Nordstream 2 pipeline, which is designed to furnish Russian natural gas to Germany, hangs in the balance, although that pipeline has not yet begun operations.
“If Vladimir Putin wants to see gas flow through that pipeline, he may not want to take the risk of invading Ukraine,” Sullivan said Biden told the Russian leader.
Shortly afterwards, Nuland was even clearer in speaking before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, saying that if Russia made a military move against Kiev, “our expectation is that the (Nordstream 2) pipeline will be suspended.”
The US has spoken about that possibility with both the outgoing and incoming governments in Germany, said Sullivan, a sign of Biden’s interest in coordinating as closely as possible the US-European response to a Russian incursion.
After speaking with Putin, Biden almost immediately called French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, along with the prime minister of Italy, Mario Draghi, and of the United Kingdom, Boris Johnson.
The White House said that all the leaders agreed to maintain a coordinated and exhaustive effort to respond jointly to Russian troop movements into Ukraine and they said that they trusted that Moscow would work to reduce tensions and settle its dispute with Ukraine diplomatically.
Biden on Thursday will telephone Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to coordinate Washington and Kiev’s stances after the call with Putin, according to the US government.
Putin’s response to Biden’s warnings, according to the Kremlin, consisted in downplaying the seriousness of Russia’s moves and insisting that he considers the possible entry of Ukraine into NATO to be a “red line” that would threaten Russian security and wants to see legally codified guarantees implemented to prevent that possibility.
Calling the virtual summit “candid and businesslike,” the Kremlin said that “Putin emphasized that it’s wrong to put the responsibility on Russia, since it is NATO that has been making dangerous attempts to expand its presence on the Ukrainian territory and has been expanding its military potential near Russian borders.”