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Biden and Putin to speak on Thursday amid Ukraine tensions

The two leaders will discuss a range of topics,
including upcoming security talks between the countries and a tense situation
in Europe, White House National Security Council spokesperson Emily Horne said
in a statement.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told Reuters the call
was planned for “late Thursday evening,” without elaborating.

Horne said Biden had spoken with leaders across Europe
about the situation on the Ukraine border, while Biden administration officials
were in touch with NATO, the European Union and the Organization for Security
and Cooperation in Europe.

Moscow has alarmed the West by massing tens of
thousands of troops near Ukraine in the past two months, following its seizure
of Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula in 2014 and its backing of separatists fighting
Kyiv troops in eastern Ukraine.

Russia denies planning to attack Ukraine and says it
has the right to move its troops on its own soil as it likes.

Moscow, worried by what it says is the West’s
re-arming of Ukraine, has said it wants legally-binding guarantees NATO will
not expand further eastwards, and that certain offensive weapons will not be
deployed to Ukraine or other neighbouring countries.

US concerns have not ebbed in recent weeks, according
to a senior Biden administration official. Other US officials said that despite
a report over the weekend that Russia would be pulling back about 10,000 troops
from its border with Ukraine, they had seen little evidence to support that so
far.

“We are at a moment of crisis and have been for
some weeks now given the Russian build-up, and it will take a high level of
engagement to address this and to find a path of de-escalation,” said one
of the officials, who declined to be named.

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That person said Putin requested the call with Biden.

“When President Biden has asked to speak with
President Putin over the course of 2022, President Putin has said, Yes, let’s
talk. And when President Putin says, I’m interested in touching base and having
a phone call, President Biden says yes.”

Biden is likely to reiterate during the call that the
United States will take swift economic action against Russia in the case of an
invasion. They will also reinforce the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in
such a case.

But the US president has been pushing direct diplomacy
as an alternative.

The Biden administration has been in deep talks with
Ukraine as well as a host of NATO allies, including those bordering Russia,
according to Horne, the White House spokesperson.

Biden will likely speak with Ukraine’s President
Volodymyr Zelenskiy soon, another official said. US Secretary of State Antony
Blinken spoke with the Ukrainian leader on Wednesday and expressed
“unwavering support for Ukraine’s independence,” according to a
spokesperson.

JSTARS, a type of US military spy plane, operated in
Ukrainian airspace for the first time earlier this week, though different types
of surveillance aircraft are common in the region, officials said.

Biden on Tuesday said “we’ll see” when asked
if he would meet Putin on Jan. 10, the same day US and Russian officials are
due to hold security talks. But Biden is not expected to attend those talks or
meet with Putin that day, an official said.

Russia and NATO are also set to hold talks on Jan 12,
with a broader meeting including Moscow, Washington and other European
countries slated for Jan 13.

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Putin has compared to the current tensions to the Cold
War-era Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. Washington regards some of his demands,
including restrictions on NATO expansion, as non-starters.

Conversations between Putin and Biden are likely to
touch on other issues, too, including the ongoing talks with Iran over its
nuclear programme, a US official said.

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