On Tuesday, Presidents Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin spoke for more than two hours over video conference to discuss the massive buildup of Russia’s military forces on its border with Ukraine. The call came together quickly after the Kremlin made it known that it expected a conversation between Biden and Putin by the end of the year, implying that all the other contacts from American officials—National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, C.I.A. director Bill Burns—were not enough. Instead, Putin got another bilateral meeting with Biden, his second in six months.
In the 24 hours since the meeting ended, Putin and Biden, as well as some of their emissaries, have taken to the Russian and American media to spin the summit. On the American side were Sullivan and Victoria Nuland, the Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs and a known Russia hawk. (Her handing out snacks to protestors on Kyiv’s Maidan during the pro-European revolution in 2013 has made her a radioactive bogeyman in Russia, though the Kremlin lifted its sanctions on her to allow her to come to Moscow for talks in October.) Both Nuland and Sullivan were stern and unyielding. Nuland said America and its allies “will be united in imposing severe consequences on Moscow for its actions, including high impact economic measures that we have refrained from using in the past.” Echoing her, a stone-faced Sullivan cautioned that, if Russia invaded Ukraine, the Nordstream II pipeline would remain unfinished forever and that the U.S. would do “things we did not do in 2014,” when Russia first invaded Ukraine. (I told you about the Nordstream threat earlier this week as well as about other possible sanctions that the Biden administration is said to be considering. They reportedly include the “nuclear” option of cutting Russia off from the SWIFT international financial system. Both those moves would hurt Russia, but they would also really sting for Germany and other European countries that have close trade ties with Russia. More on this in a bit.) Biden, speaking to reporters outside the White House this afternoon, said that “there were no minced words” and that he “made it very clear” to Putin “that if he in fact invades Ukraine, there will be severe consequences.”
Russian officials have sounded far more conciliatory after amping up their rhetoric in the week before the summit. Putin made sure to restate that even talking about a Russian invasion was “provocative” and that he is not satisfied with Ukraine’s position vis-a-vis NATO. Still, he was clearly at pains to portray yesterday’s meeting as productive. “We agreed we will continue this discussion and we’ll do it in a substantive way,” he told reporters. Yury Ushakov, Putin’s normally press-shy foreign policy advisor, has been particularly active in the Russian press, reassuring people that “there wasn’t even discussion” of sending Russian troops into Ukraine. He added that when Biden threatened sanctions in the meeting, it was done “in an acceptable form, befitting the presidential level.”