Russian, US presidents set to discuss Ukraine crisis
By Stefan J. Bos
Thursday's phone talk between the two leaders attempts to de-escalate mounting tensions over Ukraine, a former Soviet nation.
Moscow announced it withdrew some 10,000 troops from its border area near Ukraine ahead of the conversation. But critics view that as window dressing because more than 100,000 Russian forces are reportedly still in the area.
Satellite images show a troop buildup, including units believed to have been newly moved towards the Russia-Ukraine border.
The Kremlin claims its troops are there for exercises and that Russia is entitled to move its forces freely on its soil.
However, Kyiv and Western leaders fear Russia plans to invade Ukraine, perhaps as early as next month. President Putin has not entirely excluded that possibility saying he considers several options if the West fails to meet his push for security guarantees.
Putin told reporters his demands include halting the further expansion of the U.S.-led NATO military alliance eastwards to Ukraine.
He also seeks legally binding guarantees that NATO will stop sending weapons such as missiles to Ukraine or other neighbouring countries. "Our actions will depend not on the negotiation process but the unconditional security of Russia. Today and in the historical perspective," President Putin said at his annual news conference.
He added: "In this regard, we have made it clear and explicitly that further NATO movement eastward is unacceptable. What is unclear here? Are we putting missiles next to the United States borders? No. It is the United States that has come to us with its missiles. They are already on our doorstep."
Putin also says that Ukraine seems to seek war and that Russia "prepares for that scenario." His comments come in a month of the 30th anniversary of the collapse of the Russia-led Soviet Union, of which Ukraine was part before declaring independence.
Moscow already annexed Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula in 2014 and supports Russian separatists in the east of the country. Russia has denied accusations that it provides the rebels with weapons and troops in the conflict which has claimed more than 14,000 lives.
In Thursday's phone call, Biden was due to tell Putin that the U.S. supports its allies. But U.S. officials say Biden will demonstrate a willingness to engage in what he called "principled diplomacy" with Russia on Ukraine.
Earlier this month, the two presidents held a virtual summit when Biden reiterated his support for Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity. While Ukraine is not a NATO member, it has close ties with the bloc.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has stressed that Ukraine's membership in the alliance is for NATO and Kyiv to decide. "NATO's relationship with Ukraine is going to be decided by the 30 NATO allies and Ukraine -- no one else," Stoltenberg said.
"We cannot accept that Russia is trying to re-establish a system where big powers like Russia have spheres of influence, where they can control or decide what other members can do," he warned.
The standoff has added to concerns in other countries bordering Russia. For instance, Lithuania's President Gitanas Nausea has described the current situation in the region as probably "the most dangerous it's been in 30 years".
Russian officials will meet U.S. counterparts in Geneva, Switzerland January 10; but the Russian and American presidents are not expected to attend these talks.
Despite their differences about Ukraine, White House officials say the U.S. could still work with Russia on other issues, such as preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.