US and Russia face deep differences ahead of Ukraine talks

  • President Joe Biden speaks to members of the media Friday as he leaves Banks' Seafood Kitchen after having New Year's Eve lunch with first lady Jill Biden in Wilmington, Del. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

WILMINGTON, Del. — After tough talk between Presidents Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin over the Russian troop buildup on the Ukraine border, both sides insist they are hopeful that a pathway to easing tensions could open during diplomatic talks set for January.

But with less than two weeks to go before senior U.S. and Russian officials are to meet in Geneva, the chasm is deep and the prospect of finding an exit to the crisis faces no shortage of complications.

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Biden on Friday told reporters that he advised Putin when they spoke by phone a day earlier that the upcoming talks could only work if the Russian leader “deescalated, not escalated, the situation” in the days ahead. The U.S. president said he also sought to make plain to Putin that the U.S. and allies stood ready to hit Russia with punishing sanctions if the Russians further invade Ukraine.

“I made it clear to President Putin that if he makes any more moves into Ukraine we will have severe sanctions,” Biden said. “We will increase our presence in Europe with NATO allies.”

Meanwhile, Biden’s national security team on Friday turned their attention to preparation for the Geneva talks, set for Jan. 9 and 10, to discuss the Russian massing of some 100,000 troops on its border with Ukraine.

The Geneva talks, which are to be led on the U.S. side by senior State Department officials, are slated to be followed by Russia-NATO council talks and a meeting of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe.

Biden is scheduled to speak by phone Sunday with Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. The two leaders plan to review preparations for the upcoming diplomatic engagements, according to the White House.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Friday debriefed Canadian Foreign Minister Mélanie Joly, Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg on the Biden-Putin call and discussed preparations for the upcoming summit.

“The two weeks ahead are going to be tough,” said Daniel Fried, a former U.S. ambassador to Poland who was a top adviser on Eastern Europe to Presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton. “The Biden administration has done a pretty credible job of outlining, framing up the negotiations. But the toughest test is yet to come because Putin will continue to engage in threats and brinksmanship to see how determined we are.”

While Biden reiterated that he stood ready to exact sanctions that would reverberate throughout Russia, Kremlin officials doubled down on its warning to Biden about making a “colossal mistake” that could have enormous ramifications for an already fraught U.S.-Russian relationship.

A top Putin aide on Friday reinforced that Russia stands by its demands for written security guarantees. Moscow wants it codified that any future expansion of NATO must exclude Ukraine and other former Soviet bloc countries and demands that the bloc remove offensive weaponry from countries in the Russian neighborhood.

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