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Biden expected to offer warnings and alternatives in call with Putin

President Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin, arrived to meet in Geneva, Switzerland, June 16.Alexander Zemlianichenko/Associated Press

President Biden is expected to offer some diplomatic alternatives to military action in Ukraine when he speaks to Russian President Vladimir Putin in a video meeting Tuesday, but Biden will warn him that if he orders his forces to invade Ukraine, Western allies may move to cut Russia off from the international financial system, administration officials said.

The meeting, Biden’s most critical — and most likely his highest-stakes — leader-to-leader conversation since he took office more than 10 months ago, may set the course for Ukraine’s fate as a fully independent nation. In the month since Biden dispatched CIA Director William Burns to Moscow, Russian forces have encircled Ukraine on three sides and accelerated a cyber and disinformation campaign to destabilize its government, according to US, European, and intelligence officials.

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Administration officials would not describe the new diplomatic offers in detail, but they appeared to be an effort to alleviate Putin’s claim that Ukraine is posing a threat to Russia by allying too closely with the West. But officials are doubtful there is anything they can offer Putin that would dissuade him from his fundamental goal of destabilizing the current Ukraine government of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, and Russia is already using a familiar campaign of disinformation, cyberattacks, and military intimidation to unseat the country’s leadership. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss Tuesday’s call.

Burns’s warnings to the Russian leader appear to have been largely ignored, officials say. The official US assessment is still that Putin has not decided to conduct a full-scale invasion, officials say. But Putin and Biden, officials say, come to the conversation Tuesday, which both men signaled they wanted, with very different agendas.

White House officials have been gaming out a series of scenarios with Biden, including that Putin comes with a series of demands that go well beyond the familiar one that Ukraine can never join NATO. They include a reorientation of Ukraine away from the West and back into Moscow’s orbit.

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Biden must convince Putin that the administration’s commitment to Ukraine, which it has called “unshakable,” is deep enough to cause tremendous economic pain to Russia — even if, as both men know, US forces would not come directly to Ukraine’s aid. Under discussion are steps as extreme as cutting off Russia’s access to the international financial settlement system, called SWIFT, and a series of restrictions on its banks such as those honed in the effort to sanction Iran.

In a briefing to reporters Monday, a senior administration official said there was still no evidence Putin had decided to invade. But the official, who spoke on background under rules set by the White House, said Russian forces were already deployed in the northeast, the south, and the west, in an effort that would put Putin in a position to move in quickly.

But other officials said they are already seeing heightened cyberaction, and some officials are recalling that Russia cut off the electric power to two parts of Ukraine in past years — and most likely had the capability for further disruptions now.

Biden is expected to encourage alternatives to military action. Administration officials did not offer details of what kind of diplomatic process Biden will offer, but elements of that were hinted at by Secretary of State Antony Blinken last week in his visit to Europe, where he shared intelligence findings with NATO allies.

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That effort appeared to begin to convince Germany, among others, that a clear warning to Putin was needed. Biden plans to speak with the leaders of Ukraine and several European allies Monday before his call in an effort to keep a unified front. But many European officials are clearly worried that Putin could respond to pressure by diminishing gas supplies to Europe as winter approaches.

Some administration officials believe that Putin views Biden as focused on COVID at home and China abroad and that at a moment when Germany is changing leadership and France is facing an election, this is an opportune time to begin reconstituting pieces of the old Soviet Union. They are even concerned that he may try to use Belarus, whose leader appears increasingly aligned with Putin, as a pathway to move against Kyiv.

Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, on Monday dismissed warnings of a possible Russian invasion of Ukraine as “aggressive and hostile rhetoric” by the West and as “clearly targeted leaks in the Western or, as we say, Anglo-Saxon media.”

He said the Kremlin was expecting to hear “concrete proposals” on Ukraine from Biden in Tuesday’s meeting. Putin has demanded “long-term security guarantees” for Russia in Eastern Europe, such as a pledge to roll back Western military cooperation with Ukraine.

“President Putin will listen to those proposals with great interest, and it will be possible to understand how much they are able to reduce tensions,” Peskov said on Russian state television Monday, according to the Interfax news agency.

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Peskov appeared on television from New Delhi, where Putin was holding talks with Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India — a visit that served as a reminder of Russia’s efforts to build relationships around the world even as ties have worsened with the West. Peskov said that despite the flaring tensions over Ukraine, there was still some positive momentum in the relationship with Washington, with talks between US and Russian officials on matters such as arms control and cybersecurity gaining pace in recent months.

“Although our bilateral relations remain in a very lamentable state, they have nonetheless begun reviving in some areas, and dialogue is starting,” Peskov said.

A declassified assessment disclosed by the Biden administration late last week, in an effort to shore up opposition inside Russia to Putin’s plans, suggested that by January he may have as many as 175,000 troops on the border — up from roughly 100,000 now. But some military and intelligence officials believe that the figure may go higher, as Putin distributes his forces in a way to suggest he could try a three-sided “pincer” invasion of the country.

In the briefing for reporters, the senior administration official also said there had been a “significant spike in social media pushing Russian propaganda” that followed the pattern of Russian actions in 2014, just before the invasion and annexation of Crimea.

The Kremlin sees Ukrainians as “one people” with Russians, living in a failing state controlled by Western forces determined to divide and conquer the post-Soviet world.

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Ukraine, by contrast, ousted a Russia-friendly president in 2014 and increasingly is in favor of binding the country to Western institutions.