On a conference call with reporters Sunday, a senior Obama administration official described talks between former Vice President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin on Saturday as “productive.” The two men discussed possible ways to defuse the simmering tensions between Ukraine and Russia that led to Russia’s annexation of Crimea and a recent conflict in eastern Ukraine that has killed more than 2,100 people.
Biden, the official said, didn’t commit to a specific course of action but said that the leaders had shown a willingness to talk about “one or two incremental steps that can achieve some positive leverage” for Ukraine.
The United States and its European allies announced a new round of sanctions against Russia last week, two weeks after Ukraine announced it would implement a peace agreement calling for a full pullback of Russian military forces from the country’s east. The five-month-old agreement, which followed weeks of talks between Ukraine, Russia, and separatist leaders, was signed in Minsk, Belarus, in February.
Although talks between U.S. and Russian officials have generally improved recently, Vice President Mike Pence recently slammed the “loose and reckless behavior” of Russian President Vladimir Putin, accusing the Kremlin of “utter contempt for the sovereignty of Ukraine and its people.”
The call with reporters was notable, since typically such calls are held privately with U.S. officials’ top national security advisers, who assess the progress of any conversation. The officials on the call would not be identified by name in order to discuss the diplomatic talks, which have long involved Biden.
The administration official described the call as “volatile” and said the two men showed a willingness to confront each other. At one point, the official said, Biden told Putin that “it’s imperative we stick together on this and recognize that we all want to see good neighborliness here.”
Biden’s trip to Ukraine last week was meant to send a message to Russian leaders that U.S. President Donald Trump has not been soft on Putin’s actions, the official said. “It was the opposite,” the official said. “The focus was entirely on the business of opposing Russia’s actions.”
Trump responded quickly to the protests in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August, condemning violence on all sides as a “egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence, on many sides, on many sides.”
Biden is to visit Kiev this week in part to show solidarity with Ukraine as it pursues an ally in the Trump administration. During his trip, Biden is expected to meet with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin, who will meet with the former vice president in Brussels.
The senior administration official said that Biden has conveyed to the European Union that the United States is not likely to provide Ukraine with lethal weapons but that the Obama administration is willing to provide Ukraine with nonlethal aid.