Russian President Vladimir Putin has told his United States counterpart Joe Biden that any sanctions over Ukraine would be a big mistake, an aide to the Kremlin said on Thursday, after the two leaders spoke by phone ahead of lower-level talks next month.
The call, which US officials said began at 3:35pm EST (20:35 GMT) and lasted 50 minutes, came amid weeks of Western concerns over Russia’s deployment of tens of thousands of troops near its border with Ukraine.
Kremlin aide Yuri Ushakov said Russia was satisfied with the conversation, which he said centred on security guarantees that Moscow wants from the West, but that any substantial sanctions against Russia would be “a colossal mistake”.
“We hope this will not happen,” Ushakov told reporters after the phone call.
It was the second time Putin and Biden held direct talks this month, as the Russian military buildup near Ukraine continues to heighten fears that Russia may be preparing for an imminent invasion of its neighbour.
In a statement describing Thursday’s talks, the White House said Biden urged Putin to “de-escalate” the simmering tensions and “made clear that the United States and its allies and partners will respond decisively if Russia further invades Ukraine”.
The Kremlin has denied that it plans to make an incursion into Ukraine, instead accusing Western nations of undermining the security situation in the region through the expansion of NATO and Ukraine’s growing ties with the alliance.
Ahead of the discussion, both sides insisted they were ready to listen. But with Thursday’s talks setting the stage for lower-level, face-to-face negotiations in Geneva in January, there were few indications of significant concessions on the horizon.
Biden expressed support for those upcoming discussions during his call with Putin, the White House also said, and “reiterated that substantive progress in these dialogues can occur only in an environment of de-escalation rather than escalation”.
Samuel Greene, director of the Russia Institute at King’s College London, told Al Jazeera that both the US and Russia “need to be seen as putting the effort in” amid the tensions.
“This is an opportunity for Putin to claim some victory, to show that maybe the West is buckling a little bit – if he can spin it that way,” Greene said. “For the Biden administration … and the European allies, it’s extremely important to really do everything they can – short of making concessions that they can’t make – to ensure peace and security in and around Ukraine.”
Talks next month
Earlier this month, the Russian government published draft security pacts demanding that NATO deny membership to Ukraine and other former Soviet countries and roll back the deployment of troops and weapons in central and eastern Europe.
But the US and its NATO allies have said only members of the alliance can decide when other nations join, while stressing that any security talks with Moscow would need to take into account NATO’s concerns and involve Ukraine and other partners.
Sergey Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, said this week that Russian diplomats and military officials would take part in talks with the US next month on the list of security guarantees Moscow wants from Washington.
Those discussions in Geneva are set to take place on January 10, while Moscow and NATO representatives are expected to meet on January 12. The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, which includes Russia and the US, will address the tensions the following day.
Russia’s delegation will be led by Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, and the US delegation by Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman.
Meanwhile, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken reiterated the US’s “unwavering support” for Ukraine in a call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on Wednesday, the State Department said.
The United Kingdom warned Russia last week that any incursion into Ukraine “would be a massive strategic mistake and would be met with strength, including coordinated sanctions with our allies to impose a severe cost on Russia’s interests and economy”.
Putin has said Russia is not looking for war with its neighbour but wanted an “immediate” response from the US and its allies to its demand for security guarantees.
Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014 and shortly after supported a separatist rebellion in the country’s east, plunging relations between Moscow and the West to post-Cold War lows.
The fighting in Ukraine’s industrial heartland, known as the Donbas, has killed more than 14,000 people to date, according to Kyiv.