Putin mostly shrugs off Biden's sanction threats over Ukraine

Mikhail Metzel, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP

Last weekend we discussed the planned video conference call between US President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin where they would discuss the massing of Russian troops on the Ukrainian border. At the time, the State Department said that Biden would be threatening severe economic sanctions on Russia if Putin chose to move his troops into that country. The call took place yesterday as scheduled, though it wasn’t broadcast for public consumption. Details of the discussion emerged afterward, however, and Biden reportedly made those threats as promised. For his part, Putin appeared to shrug off both the allegations of an impending invasion and the thought of any new sanctions on his country. The Associated Press described the call in mild tones, only saying that they produced “no breakthrough in Ukraine tensions.”

President Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin were still far apart after two hours of talks on the escalating crisis caused by Russia’s massing of tens of thousands of troops near its border with Ukraine.

Biden delivered a simple message during Tuesday’s video call with Putin: invade Ukraine again and face painful sanctions that will do resounding harm to your economy. Putin had his own blunt take, according to his foreign adviser Yuri Ushakov, telling the U.S. president that “the Russian troops are on their own territory, and they don’t threaten anyone.”

With no immediate breakthrough to ease tensions on the Ukraine question, the U.S. emphasized a need for diplomacy and de-escalation, while issuing stern threats to Russia about the high costs of a military incursion.

Putin’s position is unsurprising and mostly what most analysts had predicted. The idea that tens of thousands of troops staged on the Ukrainian border with large supply lines established behind them “don’t threaten anyone” is rather laughable, but technically true. As long as they stay on their side of the border, where Putin puts his troops is basically his own business. But he’s clearly sending a message to the current Ukrainian government, NATO, and the rest of the world.

As far as the new sanctions go, Russian foreign adviser Yuri Ushakov described the threats as being irrelevant. “Sanctions aren’t something new, they have been in place for a long time and will not have any effect,” he said.

Biden did add one more economic threat to the pile, insinuating that the United States’ support of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline between Russia and Germany would end. A leading US envoy told reporters that if Putin invades Ukraine, the expectation is that “the pipeline will be suspended.”

Putin reportedly had some demands of his own. He told Biden that he insists that we commit to ensuring that Ukraine is never allowed to become a member of NATO and that there will never be any new missile systems placed in Ukraine by the United States or any other NATO members. This seemed to be a direct response to Biden’s declaration that a Russian invasion would prompt the United States to bolster the defensive capabilities of allied nations in the region. Jake Sullivan was quoted as saying that such a move by Russia would cause America to “provide additional defensive material to the Ukrainians … and we would fortify our NATO allies on the eastern flank with additional capabilities in response to such an escalation.”

The two leaders spent a couple of hours on the call, with parts of the conversation reportedly seeming friendly and even humorous. But in terms of actual progress, there simply wasn’t any. Putin obviously isn’t ready to make any concessions and he doesn’t appear to be terribly worried about any of Biden’s threats. There was no suggestion of withdrawing his troops from the border and plenty of threats as to what might happen if he is “provoked” into taking military action. This didn’t turn into a case of the Russian president banging his shoe on the table, but the two leaders also completely failed to move the needle on the current tensions being seen on the border of Ukraine.