Biden made consequences of Ukraine invasion ‘crystal clear’ in call with Russia’s Putin

President Joe Biden's video call with Russian President Vladimir Putin Tuesday was the fourth time the leaders have spoken or met this year. Russia now has more than 100,000 troops stationed on the border of Ukraine, and Biden gave Putin a "crystal clear" message, according to aides, that Russia faces significant economic reprisals if it were to invade. Nick Schifrin reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    President Biden's meeting today via videoconference with Russia's President Vladimir Putin was the fourth time the leaders have spoken or met this year.

    Russia now has more than 100,000 troops stationed on the border of Ukraine, and Mr. Biden gave Putin a — quote — "crystal-clear message" — that is according to White House aides — that Russia faces significant economic reprisals if it were to invade.

    Here's Nick Schifrin.

    Joe Biden, President of the United States: Good to see you again.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    In a virtual meeting over a real-life standoff, Presidents Biden and Putin started with smiles, but, at the White House, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said Biden delivered a firm warning.

  • Jake Sullivan, U.S. National Security Adviser:

    There was no finger-wagging, but the president was crystal clear about where the United States stands on all of these issues.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Senior congressional officials tell "PBS NewsHour" the administration is threatening economic sanctions, including removing Russia from the international SWIFT banking system, freezing Russian banks' international assets and blocking their international transactions.

    The U.S. today also hinted any Russian invasion could threaten Russia's Nord Stream 2 pipeline, designed to deliver natural gas to Europe.

    Ukraine's military today is stronger than it was the last time it faced Russian invasion in 2014. Biden today told Putin the U.S. would increase military support to Ukraine just as Ukraine recently deployed hundreds of American-made Javelin missiles and Turkish-made drones that can target Russian tanks.

    And the administration also said President Biden told Putin that NATO's Eastern allies would receive more U.S. troops and training similar to these 2016 exercises.

    For weeks, Russian military drills and irregular deployments signal they're ready for escalation. Satellite images show a massive buildup along the Russian-Ukraine border. And U.S. intelligence produced a map that shows five newly deployed Russian battalion tactical groups north of Ukraine, two newly deployed groups off the Ukraine's northeast border, more troops off Ukraine's southeast, where Russia has invaded in the past, and additional tanks and artillery in Russian-annexed Crimea, for a potential of 175,000 forces.

    And inside Eastern Ukraine, Russian-backed separatists maintain control of territory and vow to fight from World War I-style trenches. In the Ukrainian militaries trenches, this week, President Volodymyr Zelensky tried to reassure front-line troops he has their backs. On Monday's Armed Forces Day, Zelensky said the country faced an existential threat from a single enemy.

  • Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukrainian President (through translator):

    Freedom is the greatest value for us. It is a symbol of our country. All of Ukraine, the servicemen of the armed forces of Ukraine who continue to fill the most important mission, to defend the freedom and sovereignty of the state from the Russian aggressor.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The Kremlin said today Putin demanded — quote — "legally fixed guarantees" Ukraine never host U.S. missiles or join NATO, as he said recently.

  • Vladimir Putin, Russian President (through translator):

    Just look how close to Russian borders is the military infrastructure of the North Atlantic Alliance. We take it more than seriously.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But, today, Sullivan said Biden rejects that request.

  • Jake Sullivan:

    He made no such commitments or concessions. He stands by the proposition that countries should be able to freely choose who they associate with.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    To deter Russia, Biden last night and today called his counterparts in the United Kingdom France, Germany and Italy to present a united front.

    Olaf Scholz will be Germany's chancellor as of tomorrow.

  • Olaf Scholz, Incoming German Chancellor (through translator):

    Just like everyone else in Europe and in the United States, we are worried about the troop movements we are seeing on the border with Ukraine, which is why it must be absolutely clear that it would be an unacceptable situation if Ukraine was threatened.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    For more on all this, we turn to Victoria Nuland, undersecretary of state for political affairs. She joins me from Capitol Hill, where she was testifying today.

    Victoria Nuland, welcome back to the "NewsHour."

    Let's start by talking about the path to diplomacy that President Biden laid out today. What is the off-ramp that President Putin was offered?

    Victoria Nuland, U.S. Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs: Well, Nick, as you recall, with regard to Russia's invasion of Eastern Ukraine, there is a set of agreements on the table for de-escalation called the Minsk Agreements, which essentially involves giving a special status for Donbass, having elections out there, in exchange for Russia pulling out all of its forces and returning the sovereign border to Ukraine.

    So those talks, which were pretty active in '15 and '16, have gone stale. So the U.S. is offering to play a diplomatic role in getting those reinvigorated. President Putin also has a number of concerns that he likes to voice about the actions of NATO being destabilizing to Russia.

    We're obviously prepared, as the president said to President Putin and as National Security Adviser Sullivan has said publicly, to have a conversation with Russia, along with our allies and partners, about any strategic concerns that they have. But that's a different matter than whether Russia gets a veto over Ukraine's future, which it does not.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    All right, so let's talk about the first aspect of that.

    The Minsk Agreements signed in 2015 and 2014, as you said, calls on Kiev to allow occupied territory Donetsk and Luhansk some degree of autonomy. Kiev has resisted that. So are you saying that you will push Kiev actually to follow through on those promises it's made?

  • Victoria Nuland:

    Again, these were agreements that were entered into by both Ukraine and Russia under the auspices of France and Germany, and they called for Donbass to be de-occupied, for all of the foreign forces and mercenaries to come out, and for Russia to return control of the border, and in the process for Ukraine to grant more self-governance to Donbass.

    Now, since then, Ukraine has offered a high degree of self-governance to all of its other provinces. So Donbass would, in effect, have to catch up, and there could conceivably be some additional things. But those would have to be subject to negotiation. And it would be Kiev's sovereign decision what level of special status to offer for Donbass.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And, on NATO, which you referred to, why not consider preventing Ukraine from joining NATO, since there is no momentum right now for Ukraine to gain membership?

  • Victoria Nuland:

    Well, first of all, the NATO charter signed in 1949 says that the alliance is open to any European democracy that can meet the standards of membership.

    Frankly, that would be an option for Russia too, if it were to change manifestly, which it has not expressed an interest in doing

    But we are not going to change NATO's open-door policy or more than 70 years of policy. And we are not going to give Russia a veto over the alliances of a sovereign country. We are — those are decisions for Ukraine to make and for NATO to make, not for the Kremlin to make.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Are you willing to provide any guarantees or assurances that U.S. missiles won't be based on Ukraine, as the Kremlin is asking?

  • Victoria Nuland:

    In 1998, and again in 2003, in the context of NATO negotiating its partnership agreement with Russia, and then renewing it again, NATO made certain assurances that we would not station substantial combat forces along Russia's borders.

    NATO has lived up to those agreements. I can't say that Russia has lived up to its side at the agreements. But that would obviously continue to pertain as long as Russia was prepared to honor its side of the pact.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    We have talked about carrots. Let's talk about the sticks.

    How specific did President Biden get today in threatening further actions, such as removing Russia from the SWIFT banking system, freezing Russian banks' assets, and blocking Russian banks' access to international markets?

  • Victoria Nuland:

    The president was crystal-clear about what Russia and the Kremlin will confront if they move aggressively on Ukraine again and about the impact on the Russian economy and on its status in the global economic system.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Another one of the sticks, you said today that Germany is prepared to — quote — "suspend Nord Stream 2 in the event of an invasion?

    Has the incoming German government made that commitment? And do you think President Putin considers that important enough to be part of his calculus when it comes to what he does with Russian forces into Ukraine?

  • Victoria Nuland:

    It is very hard to imagine that, in the context of Russia moving aggressively on Ukraine, that Europe would want to increase its dependency on Russian energy.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Are you considering targeting President Putin's personal assets and/or his most senior advisers?

  • Victoria Nuland:

    I'm not going to get into specifics here or negotiate this in public, Nick.

    But we have not been shy in the past about our sanctions with regard to folks close to President Putin and to things that matter to him.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    On bolstering Ukraine's military, I have spoken to senior Republican officials who say the administration isn't moving fast enough specifically on the delivery of weapons.

    So do you believe that you need to send more and do so more quickly?

  • Victoria Nuland:

    So, this year alone, the United States has provided more than $450 million in security assistance to Ukraine.

    And we are obviously open to doing more if the situation requires.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And does that mean that the administration is committed to increasing the speed with which those defensive weapons would be delivered?

  • Victoria Nuland:

    Again, there are a number of things already delivered to Ukraine that they need to be thinking about how to use in the context of self-defense.

    And we are talking to them about that. And we are open to other things that they may need.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And, finally, today, you said this.

    You said: "This is a moment of testing. Autocrats and our friends will watch closely what we do."

    Why is this moment so important?

  • Victoria Nuland:

    Because President Putin may be aspiring once again to change global geography by force, to violate the sovereignty of independent territory, of an independent nation.

    And if the democracies stand by and allow that to happen, then it will embolden autocrats everywhere.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Victoria Nuland, thank you very much.

  • Victoria Nuland:

    Thank you, Nick.

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