WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden told Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday that the U.S. would pursue "strong economic measures" and increase military aid to the region should Russia invade Ukraine.
Biden told Putin that in addition to sanctions, the U.S. would provide additional defense materials to Ukraine and build up military capabilities in nearby countries that also border Russia.
In a two-hour video call, Biden called for a "de-escalation" and reiterated U.S. support for Ukraine's sovereignty, the White House said in a statement. The two leaders discussed several other issues, including nuclear security, ransomware and Iran.
"He told President Putin directly that if Russia further invades Ukraine, the United States and our European allies would respond with strong economic measures," national security adviser Jake Sullivan said. "We would provide additional defensive material to the Ukrainians above and beyond that which we are already providing, and we would fortify our NATO allies on the eastern flank with additional capabilities in response to such an escalation."
After Putin moved more than 90,000 troops to the Ukrainian border in recent weeks, administration officials have said that they believe Russia could engage in military action but that they are unclear whether a decision has been made.
Along with the military buildup, Russia has been significantly ramping up a misinformation campaign to make Ukraine appear to be the aggressor.
The standoff could present Biden with his biggest foreign policy test since the chaotic U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan in August, which led to the Taliban's regaining control of the country. Both Democrats and Republicans criticized Biden for his handling of Afghanistan, and his approval ratings declined.
As vice president, Biden was heavily involved in U.S. relations with Ukraine. At the time, Russia had invaded and annexed the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine. This time, the White House says it will go further in countering Russian military aggression than it did in 2014.
"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," Sullivan said. "Now, in terms of the specifics, we would prefer to communicate that directly to the Russians, to not negotiate in public, not telegraph our punches, but we are laying out to the Russians in some detail the types of measures that we have in mind."
The Kremlin said in its summary of the call that Biden "emphasized the allegedly 'threatening' nature of the movements of Russian troops near the Ukrainian borders" and outlined sanctions.
The Kremlin said Putin responded by alleging that NATO is trying "to conquer Ukrainian territory" and building up its military own operations along Russia's borders.
Ukraine has sought admission into NATO, which would give it stronger military alliances with the other member countries. Putin has been a staunch critic of plans to admit Ukraine, seeing it as an aggression by the West. He has warned against any eastern expansion of NATO.
"Therefore, Russia is seriously interested in obtaining reliable, legally fixed guarantees excluding the expansion of NATO in the eastern direction and the deployment of offensive strike weapons systems in the states adjacent to Russia," the Kremlin said.
Before the call, a senior administration official said Biden would lay out a variety of actions the U.S. and its European allies would take should Russia invade Ukraine, including additional sanctions. The countermeasures would cause "deep economic harm," the official said.
Foreign policy experts say the U.S. could cut off Russia's access to the Swift banking system, which is used by the world's major economies. Such sanctions could cause reverberating economic consequences around the globe.
"I understand that Swift sanctions have been on the table this week. I understand that the State Department and the Treasury Department officials have been in Europe discussing exactly this," Bill Taylor, who was a top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine during the Trump administration, said Tuesday on MSNBC, calling it the "ultimate sanction."
Tuesday's call was the first between Biden and Putin since July, after they had met in person at a summit in June. Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy before the call, and Biden will talk to Zelenskyy on Thursday.
"The United States is not seeking to end up in a circumstance in which the focus of our countermeasures is directly from American military force as opposed to a combination of support for the Ukrainian military, strong economic countermeasures and the substantial increase in support and capability to our NATO allies," the official said.
The U.S. already has a military presence in the Balkan states bordering Russia, and it regularly conducts military exercises there.
After the call, Biden spoke with the leaders of France, Germany, Italy and the U.K. to debrief them about the call, and he was to speak with congressional leaders later Tuesday.
Administration officials have declined to say whether Biden would warn Putin about the possibility of direct military action against Russia if there is an invasion. They have said the focus is on using other diplomatic methods and avoiding a military conflict.