Five takeaways from the Biden-Putin call

US President Joe Biden speaking to Russian President Vladimir Putin by videoconference from the White House in Washington on Dec 7, 2021. PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) - US President Joe Biden and Russia President Vladimir Putin spoke for roughly two hours by videoconference on Tuesday (Dec 7) in an effort to defuse a growing military crisis along Ukraine's borders, where tens of thousands of Russian troops have massed in what US officials say could be the prelude to an all-out invasion.

The meeting was one of the biggest foreign policy tests of Mr Biden's presidency to date, with consequences for the stability of Europe, the credibility of American threats and the future of a country the United States has spent years trying to defend from Mr Putin's aggression.

Here are five takeaways from the call.

1. Ukraine's fate still hangs in the balance

The leaders' videoconference did not resolve the crisis along Ukraine's borders, and neither the Kremlin nor the White House reported substantial progress.

US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said after the meeting that Mr Biden had offered Mr Putin the choice between a diplomatic solution and the severe economic and political consequences that would follow a Russian invasion of Ukraine - but he did not say whether Mr Putin had made any commitments.

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2. Putin is standing firm

Whether Mr Biden's threats will deter the Russian leader from invading Ukraine is unclear. But Mr Putin was not conciliatory.

A Kremlin read-out of the meeting said that Mr Putin blamed the tensions on the West, which he said was building up its military capability in and around Ukraine. And Mr Putin demanded legal guarantees that the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) alliance would not expand eastwards towards Russia's borders or deploy offensive weapons systems in Ukraine.

Although the Kremlin said that Mr Biden agreed to continue discussing Mr Putin's demands, US officials rejected Mr Putin's analysis of the situation and said they would never make promises about possible Nato expansions.

3. A major energy pipeline from Russia to Germany faces new risk

The Biden administration and Congress have been at odds over a new pipeline between Russia and Germany that critics say is an unacceptable political and economic boon for Moscow. It is now in danger.

Russian companies have spent several years building the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline to Germany, a project that the Biden administration officially opposes, because it could deprive Ukraine of revenue from another pipeline that runs through its territory and would give Mr Putin added leverage over Europe's energy supplies.

But to avoid a rift with the German government, Mr Biden has deflected congressional sanctions on Germany aimed at stopping the project, angering many Republicans and some Democrats.

During testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday, however, Ms Victoria Nuland, a top State Department official, told senators that if Mr Putin attacked Ukraine, "our expectation is that the pipeline will be suspended".

That suggests private US diplomacy had won such a commitment from Germany, which would suffer financially if the pipeline were delayed or scrapped.

4. Biden needs his allies

Immediately after concluding his meeting with Mr Putin, Mr Biden spoke by phone with the leaders of France, Germany, Italy and Britain, whose support US officials say will be crucial to deterring the Russian leader.

Mr Putin has sought for years to drive wedges between America and its allies in the hope of weakening resistance to his actions and undermining Nato and the trans-Atlantic alliance.

There are experts from the Treasury Department, the State Department and the National Security Council "in daily contact with the key capitals and with Brussels" to discuss what punitive steps could be taken jointly against Russia, Mr Sullivan said.

5. It's not personal

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaking to US President Joe Biden via video call on Dec 7, 2021. PHOTO: AFP

There is little evidence of any personal hostility between Mr Biden and Mr Putin. In a brief video clip of the virtual meeting's start posted online by Russian state media, the two leaders appeared to exchange friendly greetings, with the American president, who prides himself on his rapport with foreign leaders, smiling and waving to his Russian counterpart and telling him, "Good to see you again".

Mr Sullivan told reporters: "There was a lot of give and take; there was no finger wagging. This was a real discussion; it was not speeches."

The Kremlin called the conversation honest and businesslike. An adviser to Mr Putin later told reporters that Mr Biden brought up the shared sacrifice of the US and the Soviet Union during World War II, and that the two leaders even made occasional jokes and exchanges of compliments.

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