Published: Apr 14, 2021, 14.47(IST)
US President Joe Biden on Tuesday told his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin to lower tensions on the Ukrainian border and suggested they hold their first summit.
The White House and the Kremlin reported only the second conversation between the two since Biden took office in January. Western officials urged Moscow to end the build-up and Russia, in words recalling the Cold War, said its “adversary” should keep US warships well away from the Crimea region.
Russia seized Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 and fighting has increased in recent weeks in eastern Ukraine, where government forces have battled Russian-backed separatists in a seven-year conflict that Kyiv says has killed 14,000 people.
In a sign of concern about tensions spinning out of control in the Ukraine crisis, Biden phoned Putin to propose they meet in a third country while underlining US commitment to Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.
“President Biden also made clear that the United States will act firmly in defence of its national interests in response to Russia’s actions, such as cyber intrusions and election interference,” the White House said in a statement.
In the first public Russian description of the build-up, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said Moscow had moved two armies and three paratrooper units to its western border as part of a large snap drill meant to test combat readiness and respond to what he called threatening military action by NATO.
Shoigu said on state TV that the three-week exercise, which he called successfully, was due to wrap up in the next two weeks.
Shoigu said NATO was deploying 40,000 troops and 15,000 pieces of military equipment near Russia’s borders, mainly in the Black Sea and the Baltic regions.
The Western alliance denies any such plans.
A senior U.S. State Department official told reporters: “We know Russia’s capacity. This enormous build-up that they’ve made militarily … to take aggressive action, but we don’t know their intentions obviously,” the official said.
Russia has regularly accused NATO of destabilizing Europe with its troop reinforcements in the Baltics and Poland since the annexation of Crimea.
Two US warships are due to arrive in the Black Sea this week in response to what U.S. and NATO officials say is the largest massing of Russian forces – with thousands of combat-ready troops – since Moscow seized Crimea from Ukraine.
“We warn the United States that it will be better for them to stay far away from Crimea and our Black Sea coast,” Ryabkov said. “It will be for their own good. He called the US deployment a provocation designed to test Russian nerves.
Blinken met Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba in Brussels after a Group of Seven foreign ministers condemned what they said was the unexplained rise in Russian troop numbers.
Echoing NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, who met Kuleba earlier, Blinken said Moscow’s military actions on Ukraine’s doorstep were “very provocative”.
“Russia must end this military build-up in and around Ukraine, stop its provocations and de-escalate immediately,” Stoltenberg said at a news conference with Kuleba.
Kyiv has welcomed the show of Western support, but it falls short of Ukraine’s desire for full membership of NATO.
Kuleba said Kyiv wanted a diplomatic solution, though he also appealed for further economic sanctions against Moscow and more military assistance to Ukraine.
Separately, two diplomats said Stoltenberg would chair a video conference with allied defence and foreign ministers on Wednesday. Blinken and U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin were to be present at NATO headquarters to brief the other 29 allies on Ukraine, as well as on Afghanistan, the diplomats said.
In contrast to former President Donald Trump’s reluctance to criticize Putin, Biden came into office in January openly attacking what he says is the Kremlin’s meddling in US elections, mounting of a huge cyberattack last year, and the jailing of opposition leader Alexei Navalny.
Biden said in a March interview that he agreed Putin is a “killer.”
The White House has promised retaliatory actions but has yet to make public any details.
In a surprise move Tuesday, Biden also used the call to suggest a summit with Putin somewhere other than in the United States or Russia.
“President Biden reaffirmed his goal of building a stable and predictable relationship with Russia consistent with US interests, and proposed a summit meeting in a third country in the coming months to discuss the full range of issues facing the United States and Russia,” the White House statement said.
Putin similarly held a summit in Finland in 2018 with Trump, who caused a furore at home by appearing to ignore his own intelligence community’s assessment and to accept the Russian leader’s denials of election meddling.
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said that the summit was being proposed for “the coming months,” which would mean “this summer.”
However, she expressed US skepticism over how much could be achieved in relations with Putin’s Russia.
“What we’re working toward is predictable and stable. We’re not looking for an establishment of trust as much as predictability and stability,” she told reporters.
Moscow earlier Tuesday responded to criticism of its troop deployments by saying they were “training exercises” and said Russia felt threatened by the western NATO alliance.
In its readout of the Biden-Putin call, the Kremlin said: “Both sides expressed their readiness to continue dialogue on the most important areas of ensuring global security.”
It also said that Biden proposed a summit “in the near future” but did not say whether the idea had been accepted.
Amid fears in Ukraine that Russia could launch a large-scale assault, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba met in Brussels with top officials of NATO nations including US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who voiced his strong support for Kiev.