US President Joe Biden told Russian leader Vladimir Putin on Tuesday that the west is concerned Russia will invade Ukraine and warned of "strong economic and other measures" as punishment should Moscow start a military conflict, the White House said.
The men spoke in a a two-hour video call, marking their fourth direct conversation this year, following two calls and one summit in Geneva that was itself prompted by a Russian troop buildup near Ukraine.
The US president reiterated his administration's support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and called for de-escalation.
From the White House, US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said that Mr Biden was “direct and straightforward,” during the call.
“He told President Putin directly that if Russia invades Ukraine, the United States and our European allies would respond with strong economic measures, we would provide additional defensive material to the Ukrainians, above and beyond that we are already providing, and we would fortify our Nato allies on the eastern flank with additional capabilities in response to such an escalation,” Mr Sullivan said.
The Kremlin has denied harbouring any intention to attack Ukraine and has said its troop posture is defensive.
But US officials say their intelligence suggests Russia has drafted a plan for a military offensive against Ukraine in early 2022, involving as many as 175,000 personnel along with armour, artillery and other equipment.
US intelligence has also detected an uptick in Russian propaganda targeting Ukraine, fuelling speculation the Kremlin is readying an attack, according to a Biden administration official who requested anonymity to detail the intelligence assessments.
Mr Sullivan added that the US and its allies would respond more harshly than in 2014, when Russia previously invaded and annexed Crimea.
“President Biden looked President Putin in the eye and told him today that things we did not do in 2014, we are prepared to do now.”
But he said Mr Biden also offered Mr Putin a path for de-escalation by engaging in a discussion with the US, the Europeans and Ukrainians that could address Russia’s strategic concerns. The goal of such talks would be to reach a ceasefire and implement confidence building measures in line with the Minsk agreement.
“We managed to do this at the height of the Cold War. We developed mechanisms to help reduce instability and increased transparency…there is no reason we can't do that going forward," said Mr Sullivan.
In that context, Mr Sullivan said the Biden-Putin call “was a lot of give and take, there was no finger wagging but the president was crystal clear about where the United States stands on all of these issues.”
He said there is no substitute for direct dialogue including with Russia.
Asked if Mr Biden is committed to re-opening some of Russia’s closed diplomatic missions in the US or expand its embassy presence, Mr Sullivan said the ideas were discussed but without any commitment.
“President Biden is open to creating functioning diplomatic missions in both countries, but he didn't make any specific commitments,” he said.
A Russian invasion would likely stop Germany's plans to launch the Nordstream 2 gas pipeline with Russia.
“If Vladimir Putin wants to see gas flow through that pipeline, he may not want to take the risk of invading Ukraine," Mr Sullivan said.
The White House said Mr Biden spoke with the leaders of France, Britain, Germany, Italy after his call with Mr Putin was complete.
According to Britain's Downing Street, the leaders “underlined the importance of Russia ceasing their threatening behaviour towards Ukraine” during the call.
“They agreed on the need for ongoing dialogue with Russia to encourage this outcome,” a spokeswoman said.
“The leaders agreed to stay in close contact and to co-ordinate their approaches to this issue.”
It follows Boris Johnson telling allies on Monday that the UK would “continue to use all the economic and diplomatic tools at its disposal” to prevent any Russian aggression against Kiev.
Meanwhile, testifying at a hearing in the Senate, Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland said the consequences would be “severe" on Russia if it invades Ukraine.
“It is hard to comprehend why at a time when Russia itself has one of the highest rates of Covid-19 around the world and the Russian people are suffering in other ways, who would want to spend the money in the Russian treasury, hundreds of millions of rubles on a war nobody needs with Ukraine,” she said.
Ms Nuland described the Ukrainians as tough.
“They will not stand by should President Putin order his forces into Ukraine ... I think the Russians will have a very big fight on their hands, that there will be severe casualties for them,” she said.
The Kremlin says it doesn’t intend to invade, and accuses the US and its allies of expanding their military infrastructure into Ukraine in a way that Russia sees as threatening.
Before the talks, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov declined to comment on the reports of planned sanctions, saying the “emotional statements” of recent days wouldn’t affect the talks.
“It’s obvious that if the presidents are having this conversation, they intend to discuss the issues and not drive things into a dead end,” Mr Peskov said on a conference call with reporters on Tuesday, while warning against expecting breakthroughs.
Before the call, the Kremlin said Mr Putin would push his proposal for legally binding security guarantees that Nato wouldn’t expand further eastward and wouldn’t deploy offensive weapons in the region. White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki has said that Mr Putin has no say in Nato's membership.
The White House said the two leaders also discussed the US-Russia dialogue on strategic stability, cybersecurity, as well as joint work on regional issues such as Iran.
Agencies contributed to this report