White House officials are downplaying the possibility of a looming military conflict between Russia and the United States ahead of a call between the superpowers’ two leaders on Tuesday, but emphasized that Russia will face repercussions if it continues to antagonize Ukraine.
Presidents Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin are scheduled to speak in a video call about Russia’s recent military buildup on the Ukrainian border, along with other topics.
A senior administration official on Monday said that U.S. defense officials have not reached any definite conclusions about whether Putin plans to send Russian military forces into Ukraine, but “we do know that he is putting in place the capacity to engage in such escalation, should he decide to do so.”
Biden will tell Putin that “there will be very real costs should Russia choose to proceed,” the official said, but also that “there is an effective way forward with respect to diplomacy.”
During a press conference on Friday, Biden promised he would make it “very, very difficult” for Russia to move against Ukraine. Administration officials on Monday would not detail whether Biden will discuss possible military responses if Russian forces cross the border.
“The United States is not seeking to end up in a circumstance in which the focus of our countermeasures is the direct use of American military force,” a senior official said.
However, Biden has discussed such actions with leaders of other NATO members in recent days, along with economic sanctions and other punishments.
Biden and Putin last talked directly to each other in July. Since then, U.S. intelligence officials have been tracking not only movement of military assets by Russia to the Ukrainian border but also a surge in cyber attacks and social media campaigns against Ukrainian targets.
The current tensions in the region date back to 2014, when Russia forcibly annexed Crimea over the objections of Ukraine and the international community.
The Associated Press reported this weekend that Ukraine’s defense minister, Oleksii Reznikov, has estimated the number of Russian troops near Ukraine and in Russia-annexed Crimea is estimated at more than 94,000. He has warned a “large-scale escalation” could begin next month. Brig. Gen. Kyrylo Budanov, the head of Ukraine’s defense intelligence agency, previously told Military Times that Russia was preparing for an invasion of Ukraine by late January, early February.
Biden hopes to convince Putin in his call that any such move would be foolish, officials said.
The Ukraine situation isn’t the only topic for the two leaders to discuss in the video call. Biden is also expected to broach issues surrounding Russia-based cyber attacks on foreign adversaries and the Iranian nuclear program during the discussion.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.