Biden Proposes In-Person Meeting With Putin on Neutral Turf

President Joe Biden spoke with Russian President Vladimir Putin by phone on Tuesday and proposed the two estranged leaders meet at a summit in a third country to discuss a raft of disputes, the White House said.

The Kremlin said Wednesday it was premature to talk in tangible terms about a possible summit, saying it would consider Biden’s proposal.

The call between the two presidents—officially only the second since Biden took office—took place as Western powers have grown increasingly alarmed at Russian troop buildup near the Ukrainian border, with fears that a rash move by Moscow or Kyiv could spark an outbreak of fresh hostilities.

Tensions have grown in recent weeks in Donbass, eastern Ukraine, where government forces have battled Russian-backed separatists in a simmering seven-year conflict that Kyiv says has killed 14,000 people.

In their phone call, Biden asked Putin to take steps to lower the temperature around the conflict in Donbass, while emphasizing “the United States’ unwavering commitment to Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity,” the White House said in a statement.

“The president voiced our concerns over the sudden Russian military build-up in occupied Crimea and on Ukraine’s borders, and called on Russia to deescalate tensions,” the statement noted.

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Ukrainian servicemen work on their tank close to the front line with Russian-backed separatists near Lysychansk, Lugansk region, on April 7, 2021. (STR/AFP via Getty Images)

Kyiv has raised the alarm over a buildup of Russian forces near its eastern border, and over a rise in violence along the line of contact separating Ukrainian troops and Russia-backed separatists in Donbass. The Kremlin denies its troops are a threat, but says they will remain as long as it sees fit.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky last Thursday visited positions along the frontline where a ceasefire “has been systematically violated in recent days,” with the aim of “maintaining the fighting spirit,” according to a statement from the Ukrainian presidency.

On the same day Zelensky visited the frontline, senior Kremlin official Dmitry Kozak said Russia would be forced to defend its citizens in eastern Ukraine depending on the scale of the military conflict there and accused Zelensky of “playing with fire” and of whipping up anti-Russia sentiment with his tour.

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Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy visits positions of armed forces near the frontline with Russian-backed separatists during his working trip in Donbass region, in Ukraine on April 8, 2021. (Ukrainian Presidential Press Service/Handout via Reuters)

In another sign of growing tensions, Moscow announced on April 6 that its military was beginning a “combat readiness” inspection of its forces.

Russia’s defense minister said Tuesday that the military buildup was part of readiness drills that would last another two weeks and that came amid what he described as threats from NATO.

Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said the Russian military has deployed two armies and three airborne formations to its western regions “as a response to the alliance’s military activities threatening Russia.” Russia has regularly accused NATO of destabilizing Europe with its troop reinforcements in the Baltics and Poland since Moscow annexed Crimea in 2014.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and his French and German counterparts on Friday called on Russia to halt a troop buildup and reaffirmed their support for Kyiv in its confrontation with Moscow.

Biden, in his call with Putin, also reaffirmed a goal to build “a stable and predictable relationship” with Russia and said a summit could address “the full range of issues” facing the two powers.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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