Biden preps allies for talks with Kremlin on Russian troop buildup

The negotiations, which Mr. Biden said a day earlier could include some North Atlantic Treaty Organization members and Russia, promise to be difficult for the Biden administration. Russian President Vladimir Putin is demanding not only U.S. concessions on Ukraine but also revisions in the post-Cold War order in Europe.

The White House hasn’t announced a location, timing or format for the talks. But Mr. Biden sought to assure Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and the leaders of eastern-flank countries in phone calls Thursday that the U.S. wouldn’t negotiate over their heads and underscored his administration’s “commitment to trans-Atlantic security,” the White House said.

Mr. Putin, however, last month laid bare his expectation that the West should provide “serious long-term guarantees to ensure our security,” which the Kremlin has defined as a promise that Ukraine will never be admitted to NATO, along with the scaling back of Western support for Kyiv.

In the view of current and former officials, inducing the U.S. to begin talks with Moscow may have been Mr. Putin’s goal all along.

“It is clearly a minefield for Biden and the other Western leaders to encourage Putin to choose diplomacy over military coercion where there is no easy resolution for the issues Russia is likely to raise,” said Alexander Vershbow, who served as a U.S. ambassador to Russia and to NATO. “Indeed, most of them violate longstanding Western principles.”

Following his talk with Mr. Biden, Mr. Zelensky wrote on Twitter that the two men “discussed possible formats for resolving the conflict in Donbas and touched upon the course of internal reforms in Ukraine,” in a reference to the region in Eastern Ukraine where Russia-backed separatists are fighting Ukrainian troops.

Since the fall of the Soviet Union 30 years ago, the U.S. and NATO allies have told the Kremlin they wouldn’t permit Russia to exercise a so-called sphere of influence in Eastern Europe. NATO insisted that Moscow’s one-time Soviet satellites were free to join the alliance as they pleased.

The alliance, however, has also shown signs of waffling. At a NATO meeting in Bucharest in 2008, then-President George W. Bush lobbied for Ukraine and Georgia to be accepted as new members but ran into opposition from France and Germany. That led to a compromise in which the alliance stated that two states would one day join the alliance but wouldn’t be put on an immediate path to membership.

Andriy Yermak, Mr. Zelensky’s chief of staff, told Ukrainian television that Mr. Biden had told the Ukrainian leader it was up to Ukraine and NATO whether Kyiv joins the alliance.

In angling for new talks, Mr. Putin has put forth demands that NATO won’t expand eastward by taking on new members or stationing new American missiles on Ukrainian territory that could strike Moscow, a step the U.S. isn’t planning.

“Putin is looking for a sustained dialogue, and he has wanted that for a long time,” said Thomas Graham, former Russia adviser to President George W. Bush. In the repeated warnings, Mr. Graham said, the Kremlin “has mentioned red lines, NATO expansion and NATO infrastructure. They have not said ‘sphere of influence’ but that’s what they are talking about.”

At the start of Mr. Biden’s term, White House officials held out hope that differences with Russia could be managed so the administration could focus on problems at home and the rise of China. The U.S. wouldn’t seek a “reset” in the U.S.-Russian relationship as the Obama administration did early in 2009. But neither would it greatly escalate the pressure to roll back Russian gains along its periphery or in the Middle East.

By massing forces near Ukraine, Mr. Putin forced his concerns to the front burner at the White House and has posed challenges for Mr. Biden as he seeks to lead the Western alliance.

Mr. Biden said Wednesday that he hoped by Friday to announce meetings between the U.S. and at least four NATO nations and Russia.

On Thursday night, however, a senior Biden administration official indicated that further consultations would be needed before the format for any talks could be settled.

“Within the next couple of days we are obviously going to continue talking to our European partners. We are going to continue talking with our Russian partners and finding a way forward,” the official said. “We are, of course, prepared to talk to the Russians about this full set of issues.”

Western officials said on Wednesday that the NATO participants would likely include the U.S., Britain, France, Germany and Italy. In Central and Eastern Europe, officials expressed frustration that such an arrangement would sideline them from the talks.

“Of course this bothers us, although we are not surprised by this approach,” said a Polish foreign ministry official.

Anxieties among some East European officials were also heightened Wednesday when Mr. Biden said his goal in the talks was to see if it was possible to work out “accommodations” with Moscow “as it relates to bringing down the temperature on the eastern front.”

Mr. Biden didn’t spell out what accommodations he had in mind, and the White House has been considering an array of options that include scaling back U.S. military exercises in Europe, officials said.

Mr. Graham said the U.S. might be able to allay Moscow by discussing constraints on both sides’ troops and weaponry near Russian borders, similar to agreements that reduced tension in the Cold War.

While Mr. Biden ruled out sending U.S. troops to Ukraine if Russia attacks the country, he has said he was prepared to impose severe economic sanctions on Russia and to send additional military support to Ukraine.

Whether the beginning of talks would ease tensions over Moscow’s military moves is unknown.

National Security Jake Sullivan said that Mr. Biden told Mr. Putin in their Tuesday call that the Russians should reduce their military pressure on Ukraine once talks get under way. “Diplomacy has to come in the context of de-escalation rather than escalation,” Mr. Sullivan said.

But no indication has emerged that Moscow is prepared to do so. Ivan Safranchuk, professor at Moscow State University for International Relations, said the Kremlin was likely to keep up the military pressure as leverage in the talks.

“Russia wants to make sure this issue is put on the right track and is moving in the right direction,” he said.

This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text

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