US President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin talked on the phone Tuesday and discussed the increased Russian troop deployment on the border with Ukraine and a potential summit in a third country.
A White House statement said Biden "voiced our concerns over the sudden Russian military build-up in occupied Crimea and on Ukraine's borders, and called on Russia to de-escalate tensions."
The statement added that the US would "act firmly in defense of its national interests in response to Russia's actions, such as cyber intrusions and election interference."
Biden proposed meeting with his Russian counterpart in a third country, with the White House saying Biden wanted a "stable and predictable relationship" with Russia.
The Kremlin said "both sides expressed their readiness to continue dialogue on the most important areas of ensuring global security" in a statement.
The statement also said Biden proposed a summit, but did not say if Putin agreed.
The two presidents also discussed the Iran nuclear accord and the ongoing situation in Afghanistan.
Ukraine in full focus
Russia has moved thousands of combat-ready troops to its border with Ukraine this year, in the largest such movement since Russia seized Crimea from Ukraine in 2014. Fighting has become more intense in eastern Ukraine in recent weeks between government forces and Russian-backed separatists.
According to Ukraine's government, the seven-year conflict has killed 14,000 people.
The Biden-Putin call came as Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba met with top NATO officials in Brussels, including US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and the alliance chief, Jens Stoltenberg. Stoltenberg tweeted Russia "must end its military build-up in and around Ukraine, stop its provocations & de-escalate immediately."
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu responded by saying the troops were deployed near Ukraine's border for "combat training exercises" in response to NATO's military movements. In televised remarks, Shoigu said the exercises would be finished in two weeks.
The Kremlin warned NATO not to get involved in the situation in Ukraine, accusing alliance members of turning the country into a "powder keg."
Meeting at the top
If Biden and Putin meet, it would be the first such summit between the nations since 2018, and the first since Biden became president.
During the previous US-Russia summit, Putin met with then-US President Donald Trump in Helsinki. Trump was lambasted for his remarks at the meeting, at which they discussed Russia's being accused of meddling in the 2016 US presidential election and the tense relations between the two countries. Relations soured after Trump backpedaled on the statements he made in Helsinki, including the claims that Russia did not interfere with the 2016 US election.
Trump also called Russia, China and the European Union "foes" the night before the summit began. Trump's comments led German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas to say the European Union could no longer rely on the US.
US intelligence in the mix
According to a report from the director of national US intelligence released Tuesday, Russia would likely "continue to employ a variety of tactics this year" in an attempt to undermine the US government and divide international alliances.
One of those tactics could include "destabilization efforts against Ukraine while settlement talks and low-level fighting continues."
But, according to the 27-page report, "Russia does not want a direct conflict with US forces" and "we expect Moscow to seek opportunities for pragmatic cooperation with Washington on its own terms."
kbd/dj (AFP, dpa, Reuters)