Biden and Putin to speak Thursday ahead of planned US-Russia talks

President Biden will speak with Russian President Vladimir Putin by phone Thursday to discuss “a range of topics” ahead of diplomatic talks in Geneva next month, the White House announced Wednesday.

The call comes amid high tensions over the presence of up to 175,000 Russian troops and heavy military equipment on Ukraine’s border, which has spurred fears that Russia intends to invade its western neighbor.

“President Biden will speak with President Putin by telephone at the request of the Russian side,” a senior Biden administration official told reporters, adding “I cannot speak to why the Russian side has requested this call.”

Putin has demanded assurances that the NATO military alliance won’t accept Ukraine as a member and Biden has indicated a willingness to reach an arrangement — sparking alarm in some other former Soviet states.

Biden will “make clear when he speaks with President Putin that we are prepared for diplomacy and for a diplomatic path forward. But we are also prepared to respond if Russia advances with a further invasion of Ukraine,” the official said.

Biden has said he won’t send US troops to Ukraine to deter Russia, but that he would impose harsh economic sanctions.

In a statement, National Security Council spokesperson Emily Horne said the administration “continues to engage in extensive diplomacy with our European Allies and partners, consulting and coordinating on a common approach in response to Russia’s military build-up on the border with Ukraine.”

Horne added that Biden has recently spoken with European leaders while administration officials have “engaged multilaterally” with NATO, the European Union and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. 

Biden met virtually with Putin earlier this month and warned the Russian president that the US and its European allies would take “strong economic measures” if Russia attacked Ukraine. 

The growing Russian military presence preceded demands by Putin that the US and NATO ensure Ukraine will not be permitted to join the alliance. Moscow has also pressed the US and NATO to promise that they will not deploy troops or send missile systems to Ukraine. 

Earlier this week, Russian officials confirmed a Jan. 10 meeting between US and Russian diplomats in Geneva to discuss Putin’s request for “security guarantees.” Putin and Biden are not expected to participate directly in those talks.

Russian officials are then expected to meet with NATO representatives on Jan. 12, with a third meeting between the US, Moscow and other European allies set for Jan. 13.

Ukraine is one of the poorest and most corrupt countries in Europe and has alternated between pro-Russian and pro-Western leaders since the end of the Cold War. A 2014 uprising moved Ukraine away from Russian influence, sparking pro-Russia protests across the Russian-speaking south and east of the country.

Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine in 2014 following a disputed referendum. Prior to 1954, the important port and resort region was considered part of Russia within the Soviet Union.

Putin’s government has also been accused of propping up a pair of pro-Russia breakaway states in eastern Ukraine. Those territories in the coal-rich Donbas region remain at war with Ukraine’s central government in Kiev.