US warns Russia of strong response to attack on Ukraine

WASHINGTON: US President Joe Biden warned President Vladimir Putin Tuesday of a “strong” Western economic response to any attack on Ukraine, while the Kremlin leader demanded guarantees that the NATO alliance not push closer to Russia.

The two leaders met by video link in a tense, two-hour summit seen as a vital chance for defusing the growing tension on the Russian-Ukrainian frontier, with fears growing of war in Europe.

“President Biden voiced the deep concerns of the United States and our European allies about Russia’s escalation of forces surrounding Ukraine,” the White House said in a statement soon after the talks.

Biden “made clear that the US and our allies would respond with strong economic and other measures in the event of military escalation.”

The US leader also stressed “support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and called for de-escalation and a return to diplomacy,” the statement said.

According to the White House, Biden and Putin agreed that their respective teams would “follow up” on the summit, underlining that the next US move would be “in close coordination with allies and partners.”

In its own readout, the Kremlin said Putin denounced the Western military alliance NATO’s “military potential” near Russia.

“Russia is seriously interested in obtaining reliable legal guarantees that will exclude NATO’s eastward expansion and the deployment of offensive strike weapons in countries adjacent to Russia,” the Kremlin said.

Russia denies planning to invade Ukraine, but satellite pictures showing as many as 100,000 troops gathered on the border have set Western nations on edge.

Reflecting the brittle atmosphere, Biden was shown in an official photograph sitting behind closed doors with the secretary of state and national security advisor in the White House’s Situation Room. Putin, at his resort residence in Sochi, was pictured alone at a long table in front of the video screen.

– Russian denial –

The United States says it doesn’t know for sure what Russia intends in Ukraine. Russia already supports a powerful separatist rebellion across swaths of eastern Ukraine and annexed the Crimean peninsula from Kiev in 2014.

Moscow calls invasion talk “hysteria.” Instead, Putin says that he sees Ukraine’s growing alliance with Western nations as a threat to Russian security — and that any move by Ukraine to join NATO or to host NATO missiles would be unacceptable.

“Russia has never planned to attack anyone,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Tuesday. “But we have our own red lines.”

Ukraine is nowhere near being able to join NATO, but the United States and NATO say Russia cannot be given a veto over Ukraine’s ambitions.

Biden’s national security advisor, Jake Sullivan told reporters that Biden “made no such commitments or concessions.”

– US, Europe coordinate approach –

There is no Western appetite for sending US or European troops into direct military conflict with Russia, leaving limited options for pressuring Moscow.

Sullivan said there were sanctions that Washington had held off from in 2014 but was “prepared to do now.”

One target could be Russia’s mammoth Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline to Germany. Sullivan said the pipeline’s future was at “risk” if Russia does invade Ukraine.

Sullivan also said that an attack on Ukraine would prompt calls from NATO’s eastern European members for increased US military commitments and the White House would “respond positively to those things.”

Biden talked with the leaders of Britain, France, Germany and Italy on Monday to coordinate his message ahead of the summit, and the White House said he would speak again to the four countries after he was finished with Putin.

“The leaders agreed to stay in close touch on a coordinated and comprehensive approach,” the White House said.

Biden was also planning to reach out to Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky after his virtual summit.

– Zelensky to the front –

Clad in a combat uniform, Zelensky visited troops fighting pro-Moscow separatists in the country’s east on Monday.

“Thank you for protecting the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine,” Zelensky told the soldiers, according to a statement released by Kiev.

The conflict has claimed over 13,000 lives and while Ukrainian forces are deadlocked against their separatist opponents, they would likely be overwhelmed by Russian regular troops.

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