Analysis: Biden’s first real test against Putin

Morning In America

WASHINGTON (NewsNation Now) —  President Joe Biden is ready to warn Russian President Vladimir Putin during a video call that Russia will face economy-jarring sanctions if it invades neighboring Ukraine as the U.S. seeks a diplomatic solution to deal with the tens of thousands of Russian troops massed near the Ukraine border.

The leader-to-leader conversation — Biden speaking from the Situation Room, Putin from his residence in Sochi — is expected to be one of the toughest of Biden’s presidency and comes at a perilous time.  U.S. intelligence officials have determined that Russia has massed 70,000 troops near the Ukraine border and has made preparations for a possible invasion early next year.

Biden pledged last week to make it “very, very difficult” for Putin to attack Ukraine, saying that a set of new initiatives coming from his administration are intended to deter Russian aggression. NewsNation’s Leland Vittert said the relationship between the two countries has evolved this year but that Putin has remained aggressive.

“President Putin has continued to sort of poke the United States if you will, by continuing to build up forces on the Ukrainian border,” said Vittert on “Morning in America.” “And at the same time, continue to harass us with spy planes and launch hypersonic missile tests, all military provocations to the United States without any meaningful response from the Biden administration.”

Biden aims to make clear that his administration stands ready to take actions against the Kremlin that would exact “a very real cost” on the Russian economy, according to White House officials. Putin, for his part, is expected to demand guarantees from Biden that the NATO military alliance will never expand to include Ukraine, which has long sought membership. That’s a non-starter for the Americans and their NATO allies.

Biden intends to make clear to the Russian leader that there will be a “very real cost” should Russia proceed with military action, according to a senior administration official who briefed reporters on the condition of anonymity. Vittert said that the real point of contention is how far the U.S. is willing to go.

“Are you really willing to make him pay a price? If he goes and gets it?” Vittert said. “So far, the United States has not indicated that it is willing to pay any type of price on things.”

The leaders previously met at a summit in Geneva over the summer, where Vittert said Biden was “a lot coyer than past American presidents had been in their first meeting with Putin.” Vittert recalled that presidents had been humiliated by Putin in the past.

“Putin is a bully, and he’s gonna continue to take and take and take,” said Vittert. “Remember, he got the best of George W. Bush, he got the best of President Obama and he got the best of President Trump, three very sophisticated American presidents who all thought they had Putin’s number. All thought they had him figured out and Putin always walked away, humiliating an American president and getting what he wants.”

Biden vowed as a candidate to reassert American leadership after President Donald Trump’s emphasis on an “America first” foreign policy. But Biden has faced fierce criticism from Republicans who say that he’s been ineffective in slowing Iran’s march toward becoming a nuclear power and that the Biden administration has done too little to counter autocratic leaders like China’s Xi Jinping, Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Putin.

“It’s all of NATO that is watching America to see if ‘America is back,'” Vittert said. “President Biden ran on bringing America back on standing up to Putin, called Trump a Putin puppet, standing up for American allies. This is the first real test to see if President Biden lives up to that campaign promise.”

Both the White House and the Kremlin sought in advance to lower expectations for the call. Both sides said they didn’t expect any breakthroughs on Ukraine or the other issues up for discussion, but that just the conversation itself will be progress.

Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told reporters Tuesday that, “Obviously, if the two presidents decided to have a conversation, they intend to discuss issues and don’t mean to bring matters to a dead end.”

Peskov characterized the Biden-Putin call as a “working conversation during a very difficult period,” when “escalation of tensions in Europe is off the scale, extraordinary.”

You can watch “On Balance with Leland Vittert” weeknights at 7/6 c on NewsNation.

Analysis from NewsNation’s Leland Vittert.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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