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President Biden speaks with Russian President Vladimir Putin as Ukraine tensions rise

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Russia has spent weeks amassing troops on its border with Ukraine. The White House says it is gravely concerned about the situation. It fears that Russian President Vladimir Putin will invade Ukraine. And when Putin asked to talk to President Biden in a call today - their second call this month - the answer was yes.

We turn now to NPR's Charles Maynes in Moscow and White House correspondent Asma Khalid. Good to have you both here.

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: Hey there.

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.

SHAPIRO: Asma, the two leaders spoke for close to an hour this afternoon. What did they discuss?

KHALID: Well, the White House says President Biden urged Russian President Vladimir Putin to deescalate tensions with Ukraine. You know, as you mentioned, Ari, this is the second time the two leaders have spoken in less than a month, and that alone just speaks volumes as to how high tensions are at this moment. The Biden administration sees this, they say, you know, as a real moment of crisis in its relationship with Russia.

The major question is whether or not Putin intends to invade Ukraine. The White House says there was no declaration of intention - right? - as to what Putin is going to do from today's conversation. But really, they are focused on the actions, not just the words they hear out of Moscow.

A senior administration official described the tone of the phone call as, quote, "serious and substantive" and said both leaders acknowledged there are likely going to be areas where they can find agreement and some areas where it just may be impossible. But they said one of the primary purposes of talking today was to set the tone and tenor for upcoming talks in Geneva.

You know, one question though, Ari, was why Putin asked for the call at this particular moment. The White House did mention that it was part of a round of year-end calls that Putin has been making.

SHAPIRO: Charles, I know it's late in Moscow, but what's the Kremlin saying about this?

MAYNES: Yeah. We just heard from Putin's presidential adviser, who described the talks as good and open. He said they created a foundation for these talks in Geneva that Asma mentioned, which now appears will run on January 9 and 10, so a day earlier than we initially thought. The Kremlin also issued a statement in which it said Putin had laid out to Biden the principals of these Russian security demands. These are ones where Russia's stressing that it wants legally binding guarantees against NATO's eastward expansion and station of offensive weapons near Russia's borders. And this was backed up by Putin's advisor, who said that Moscow was ready to listen to U.S. concerns, presumably about Ukraine, but was more interested in these guarantees than any compromise.

And Putin also had pushed back against U.S. threats to punish Russia. He warned Biden that a promise for massive sanctions could lead to a complete breakdown in U.S.-Russian relations and this would be a huge mistake. And the Russian leader said Moscow would react to any offensive weapons NATO might station near its borders as the U.S. might do in such a situation; in other words, suggesting brinkmanship if it came to that.

But, you know, on the whole, I think there was a feeling that the Kremlin was pleased with this conversation, at least in the sense that Putin got to lay out, once again, these Russian grievances about NATO and what he wants done about it. And now, they're willing to see how it plays out.

SHAPIRO: Asma, what does the U.S. want from the Kremlin here?

KHALID: I would say, in simple terms, they want to see evidence that Russia is deescalating the situation with Ukraine. You know, that would mean some sort of troop drawdown at the border. The Biden administration feels it really needs to see those signs in order to make progress at the diplomatic talks in Geneva next month.

President Biden did reiterate to Putin today that the United States and its allies would respond decisively if Russia further invades Ukraine. That could include economic sanctions. It could also include additional assistance to Ukraine to defend itself against Russia. A senior administration official says Biden outlined two paths to Putin - one of diplomacy, the other of deterrence - and said, ultimately, which path the U.S. takes depends on the actions out of Moscow in the coming weeks.

SHAPIRO: Charles, a lot of this has been driven by discontent in Moscow. What are some of the broader issues here?

MAYNES: Well, you know, as the call made clear, NATO expansion is Putin's primary concern, and it reflects his bitterness over the end of the Cold War and how the alliance has expanded eastward over Moscow's objections through the years. You know, Putin clearly has chosen NATO's growing involvement in Ukraine as the moment to bring this anger to a head.

Now, for years of course, the Kremlin has tried to stymie Ukraine's desire for Euro integration, to join NATO, for example, which Putin sees as a threat. You know, and it was the driving impulse between Russia's annexation of Crimea in 2014. It was also - it explains Russia's decision to back a separatist uprising in East Ukraine. And it's only with this Russian military buildup - the Kremlin is upping the ante to force a wider reckoning. It's using the threat of aggression against Ukraine as a bargaining chip. You know, Putin is trying to force the U.S. and NATO to agree to these Russian conditions.

And the demands are expansive. They don't want - not only bar NATO membership to Ukraine, but they also want NATO to pull back its presence in eastern and central Europe to where the alliance was before countries like Poland or the Baltic states even joined. So, you know, put another way, Putin is trying to rewrite the story of the end of the Cold War much more to his liking.

SHAPIRO: And Asma, what does the U.S. say to Putin's demand that NATO essentially back off?

KHALID: I mean, publicly, that's not a reasonable demand from the White House's perspective. The U.S. has made plans to reinforce NATO's posture on its eastern flank if it sees more aggression from Russia. It's also prepared to provide Ukraine with more assistance to defend itself against a potential Russian occupation.

Now, the issue of Ukraine's membership into NATO, I will say that is something that the Biden administration has tried to handle somewhat delicately. White House officials have been saying, ultimately, it's up to Ukraine, that countries have the right to determine their own alliances. But it's also true that NATO has failed to offer Ukraine any serious path to membership for the foreseeable future.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Asma Khalid and Charles Maynes, thank you both.

MAYNES: Thank you.

KHALID: Happy to do it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.