Russia continued to ramp up rhetoric against Kyiv as U.S. President Joe Biden held talks with Ukraine’s leader and was to offer security reassurances to nine Eastern European NATO allies amid a Russian military buildup near the Ukrainian border.
Biden held a phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy on December 9, and then spoke with the leaders of NATO members Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, and Slovakia.
The diplomacy comes two days after Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin held a video call amid Western concerns about the presence of tens of thousands of Russian troops near Ukraine’s border that has triggered fears of an invasion.
Russia denies it is planning to attack, claiming instead that Ukraine and NATO are provoking tensions. Moscow is demanding security guarantees against NATO’s expansion to Ukraine, which is not a member of the alliance.
During the call, Biden told Putin that Moscow will face “severe economic sanctions” should Russian troops launch an attack against Ukraine.
Zelenskiy and Biden discussed the talks with Putin, as well as ways to kick-start stalled peace negotiations over eastern Ukraine, the Ukrainian president’s office said.
Fighting between Ukrainian government forces and the separatists in eastern Ukraine has killed more than 13,200 people since April 2014. Russia asserts Kyiv is failing to meet its commitments under the 2014 and 2015 Minsk agreements aimed at putting an end to the conflict in eastern Ukraine.
“The key issue of the talks was the security situation around Ukraine and the prospects for intensifying a peace settlement,” Zelenskiy’s office said.
“The heads of state also discussed ways to provide security, financial, and political support to Ukraine in combating the ongoing hybrid aggression,” it added.
Earlier, General Valery Gerasimov, chief of the Russian military’s General Staff, warned Ukraine on December 9 against trying to launch an offensive against Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine, saying any such action will be “suppressed.”
Meanwhile, the Russian Foreign Ministry accused Ukraine of moving heavy weaponry near the front line in eastern Ukraine with the support of NATO members.
Speaking to foreign military attaches, Gerasimov complained about what he called NATO’s growing presence near Russian borders and the increasing number of drills by alliance troops.
He also dismissed Western concerns about the Russian military buildup, arguing that Moscow is free to deploy its troops wherever it likes on its territory and calling the claim of a possible Russian invasion “a lie.”
U.S. intelligence assesses that Russia has around 70,000 troops near Ukraine and could be planning a multifront offensive as early as next year, involving up to 175,000 troops.
Biden is closely coordinating Ukraine policy with major European powers, while also planning follow-up talks between the United States, NATO, and Russia.
In London, Britain’s Defense Secretary Ben Wallace reiterated that Russia would face “severe consequences” if it launched an attack on Ukraine.
Wallace said that Russian concerns about NATO encirclement made little sense.
“Only 6 percent of the Russian land border is bordered by NATO countries — that’s hardly being surrounded by NATO,” Wallace said.
In Paris on her first trip as Germany’s foreign minister, Annalena Baerbock said the European Union needed a common position when dealing with Russia.
“Russia would pay a high political and economic price for a renewed breach of Ukraine’s statehood,” Baerbock told reporters. “We can only find solutions down the diplomatic route, and we are both ready to become personally deeply engaged.”
French President Emmanuel Macron said on December 9 that he plans to hold a virtual meeting with Putin next week to try to de-escalate tensions around Ukraine. Macron also said he would be meeting with Zelenskiy next week.
Retired Czech General Petr Pavel, the former chairman of the NATO Military Committee, told RFE/RL that the Ukrainian Army is much better equipped and trained that it was in 2014, when Russia annexed Ukraine and backed separatist forces.
“It would be wrong to underestimate Russia, which has repeatedly shown that it is ready to use all instruments, including the military, to achieve its political goals and is not ashamed to break the agreements it has agreed upon,” he said.
But “the Ukrainian Army is much stronger today, so an attack on Ukraine would be a very risky step for Russia,” he added.