Biden and Putin hold high-stakes call as Ukraine tensions mount

By Maureen Chowdhury, Meg Wagner, Melissa Macaya and Melissa Mahtani, CNN

Updated 7:49 PM ET, Tue December 7, 2021
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6:27 p.m. ET, December 7, 2021

Pentagon details US troops training Ukrainian forces

From CNN's Oren Liebermann

As concern grows over the buildup of Russian forces near Ukraine’s borders, the Pentagon released a statement giving details about the different troops currently training Ukrainian forces, as well as the various brigades throughout Europe.

The Florida National Guard’s Task Force Gator recently arrived in Ukraine as part of the Joint Multinational Training Group-Ukraine (JMTG-U) mission, designed to improve the country’s defensive capabilities, the Pentagon said. The JMTG-U was established in 2015, one year after Ukraine was slow to respond to Russia’s invasion of Crimea. 

In addition to Task Force Gator, Special Operations Command Europe has a “large role” in training and advising Ukrainian special forces through exercises, communication and coordination “at every echelon,” the statement said.

The Pentagon did not disclose how many special forces were in Ukraine because of operational security concerns. 

“Training with our Ukrainian partners cultivates trust, fortifies readiness, and develops relationships, which in turn promotes peace and stability throughout Europe,” Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Anton Semelroth said in the statement.

The Pentagon would not go into detail about timelines for training, operations or deployments, nor would it say if any schedules have changed in light of the buildup of Russian forces near Ukraine.

Marines from Europe and the region operate throughout the continent for training and exercises, the Pentagon said, and thousands of Marines from II Marine Expeditionary Force will take part next year in the biannual Cold Response exercise in Norway.

Some background: Since 2014, the US has committed more than $2.5 billion in security assistance to Ukraine, the Pentagon said. That assistance has included radars, anti-drone systems, secure communications, medical gear, armed patrol boats and Javelin anti-tank systems.

6:10 p.m. ET, December 7, 2021

US will alert American citizens in Ukraine of a possible invasion, official says

From CNN's Jason Kurtz

The Biden administration is exploring options for a potential evacuation of US citizens from Ukraine if Russia were to invade the country and create a dire security situation, half a dozen sources tell CNN.

Should such a military escalation occur, Victoria Nuland, Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs, told CNN's Jake Tapper that US citizens in Ukraine will be properly alerted ahead of time.

"If we are concerned about imminent hostilities in Ukraine, we will begin warning US citizens as we do all around the world, as we are currently in Ethiopia, as we did months and months ahead of the evacuation in Afghanistan, that it's time for them to find their way home."

Asked to estimate how many US citizens may be living in Ukraine, Nuland said, "It's in the ten to 15,000 person range."

"Obviously with regard to any kind of military contingency, we also have to be thinking ahead and not be caught flat-footed," she added.

It is still unclear whether Russian President Vladimir Putin has made the decision to invade, US officials stressed. But he has amassed enough forces, equipment and supplies near Ukraine's borders that he could move to attack on very short notice.

Nuland noted that President Biden and American allies are making Putin aware of the consequences should the Russian leader choose to invade neighboring Ukraine.

"This highly unnecessary war will not only be bloody, it will also be extremely painfully economically for the average Russian and for the Russian state," she said.

5:32 p.m. ET, December 7, 2021

Action over Nord Stream 2 wouldn’t necessarily deter Russia from invading Ukraine, White House says

From CNN's Maegan Vazquez

White House Press Secretary Jennifer Psaki speaks during the daily press briefing on December 7, in the Brady Briefing Room of the White House in Washington, DC.
White House Press Secretary Jennifer Psaki speaks during the daily press briefing on December 7, in the Brady Briefing Room of the White House in Washington, DC. (Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images)

The White House relayed on Tuesday that while conversations are being had with Germany about the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, in the context of a potential invasion of Ukraine by Russia, taking action may not necessarily be the most effective deterrent against Russian aggression. 

“We have had intensive discussions with the outgoing and incoming German governments on the issue of Nord Stream 2 in the context of a potential invasion. I’m not going to characterize it beyond that, other than it is an object of great priority for the Biden administration,” White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan said during Tuesday’s White House press briefing. 

What is Nord Stream 2? It's a controversial pipeline that was built to ferry natural gas from Russia to Germany and has raised concerns about Moscow's ability to use energy supplies as leverage over Europe.

Later in the briefing, White House press secretary Jen Psaki was asked what might happen to Nord Stream 2 if Russia moves forward with invading Ukraine. 

She referenced a joint statement from July by the US and Germany saying, “what it conveyed in there is … that action would be taken if ‘Russia attempts to use energy as a weapon or commit further aggressive acts against Ukraine.’ Obviously, invading Ukraine would be an aggressive act.” 

“Part of these discussions are what the contingency planning would look like if they were to take that step,” she continued. 

Psaki added that current comprehensive planning and preparation is being done, in part, “because we did learn some lessons in 2014” when Russia occupied Crimea. But she pushed back on members of Congress suggesting that further action on Nord Stream 2 “is the answer,” saying that it “would actually not be an effective deterrent.” 

“That is not effectively going to change the behavior of President Putin,” she continued. 

“So yes, Germany, in our joint statement, made these commitments. There are a range of economic tools and options we have, our European partners have, should they decide to invade. Obviously, our preference is that we not get to that point,” Psaki said. 

 CNN's Nicole Gaouette contributed reporting to this post. 

4:21 p.m. ET, December 7, 2021

The Biden administration is exploring options to potentially evacuate US citizens from Ukraine

From CNN's Natasha Bertrand, Katie Bo Lillis, Jim Sciutto and Kylie Atwood

The Biden administration is exploring options for a potential evacuation of US citizens from Ukraine if Russia were to invade the country and create a dire security situation, half a dozen sources tell CNN.

The contingency planning is being led by the Pentagon, the sources said, and comes as the administration briefs Congress on how the US is preparing. In a "gloomy" briefing to senators by senior State Department official Victoria Nuland on Monday night, Nuland outlined the tough sanctions package being prepared by the administration in response to a potential Russian attack, but acknowledged that the US' options to deter an invasion are fairly limited, a person familiar with the briefing said.

It is still unclear whether Russian President Vladimir Putin has made the decision to invade, US officials stressed. But he has amassed enough forces, equipment and supplies near Ukraine's borders that he could move to attack on very short notice.

The administration does not currently see a need for evacuations, the sources stressed —airlines are still operating from Ukraine's international airports and land borders to Ukraine's western neighbors are open. The discussions are part of planning in the event the security situation severely deteriorates, multiple officials involved in the planning emphasized.

"The Department of Defense is a planning organization and must be ready for any manner of contingencies around the world. We do a lot of thinking about a lot of scenarios. But there is no demand signal for civilian evacuations in Ukraine, and it would be wrong to conclude that there is an active effort in the Pentagon to prepare for them," Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said in a statement.

The Defense Department and State Department have plans ready for worst-case scenarios in countries around the world, and plans are updated and changed in light of the situation on the ground. But an evacuation of diplomatic staff from Ukraine remains very unlikely.

Even if Ukraine is not a NATO member, the White House sees the country as a key Eastern European ally, and there is a strategic benefit in the presence of US diplomats and training forces in Ukraine. That makes a drawdown of the US footprint there far less likely than, for example, the drawdown of US diplomats and troops in Afghanistan.

Read the full story here.

4:11 p.m. ET, December 7, 2021

Biden briefed leaders of France, Germany, Italy and UK after Putin call, French presidency says

From CNN’s Joseph Ataman in Paris

President Biden spoke with the leaders of France, Germany, Italy and the United Kingdom — know as the “Quint” group — Tuesday to brief them on his discussion with the Russian President Vladimir Putin, a statement from the Elysee Palace said. 

The five leaders “reaffirmed their determination to work together to guarantee Ukraine's sovereignty and ensure that its stability and security are guaranteed” the statement said. 

“They remain vigilant on the aggressive initiatives which could be taken by Russia towards Ukraine,” it added.

French President Emmanuel Macron stressed the need to continue exploring avenues for de-escalation, the statement said, adding that the French leader is due to meet the incoming German Chancellor Olaf Scholz this Friday in Paris to examine means to reengage Russia in the Normandy agreement.

3:57 p.m. ET, December 7, 2021

National security adviser: Biden told Putin that "things we did not do in 2014, we are prepared to do now"

From CNN's Kevin Liptak

President Biden told his Russian counterpart Tuesday the United States is ready to take steps it previously avoided should he decide to move ahead with an invasion of Ukraine.

"Things we did not do in 2014, we are prepared to do now," Biden told Putin, according to US national security adviser Jake Sullivan, who briefed reporters following the two-hour summit between the leaders.

A package of US sanctions and non-lethal aid to Ukraine did not prevent Russia from annexing Crimea in 2014, when Biden was serving as vice president and had been handed the Ukraine portfolio by then-President Obama.

Back then, Biden privately advocated for tougher actions against Russia, including sending lethal aid, according to people familiar with the internal dynamics of the Obama administration.

Now, Biden is warning Putin that steps the US avoided seven years ago are in play. That includes tough economic measures, supplying Ukraine with additional material and increasing US troop presence on NATO's eastern flank.

Sullivan declined to lay out in specific terms what steps Biden warned Putin of.

"We would prefer to communicate that directly to the Russians, to not negotiate in public, to not telegraph our punches," he said. "But we are laying out for the Russians in some detail the types of measures that we have in mind. We are also coordinating closely with our European allies on that at a level of deep specificity."

3:59 p.m. ET, December 7, 2021

"Lots of space" for "diplomatic off ramps and de-escalation" with Russia, top US general says

From CNN's Oren Liebermann

Joint Chief Chairman Gen. Mark Milley is seen in July.
Joint Chief Chairman Gen. Mark Milley is seen in July. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

The top US general said there is “a lot of space” for “diplomatic off ramps and de-escalation” with Russia.

Speaking to the Wall Street Journal’s CEO Summit, Joint Chief Chairman Gen. Mark Milley said the buildup of Russian forces near Ukraine was different in “the scale and the scope” than the buildup this past spring.

“We’re monitoring it very closely,” Milley told the audience.

Milley spoke to his European counterparts yesterday as part of the NATO Military Committee. 

“I can tell you that there’s a great deal of resolve, but the situation is quite serious and we’ll see where it goes,” he said. “There’s a lot of concern out there.”

3:54 p.m. ET, December 7, 2021

National security adviser says Biden was "direct and straightforward" with Putin on Ukraine

From CNN's Allie Malloy

(Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images)
(Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images)

National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said President Biden was “direct and straightforward” in his phone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin, adding that Biden conveyed the US will respond to further Russian escalation in Ukraine with “specific robust clear responses” if required.

“He (Biden) reiterated American support for Ukraine sovereignty and territorial integrity. He told President Putin directly that if Russia further invades Ukraine, the United States and our European allies would respond with strong economic measures,” Sullivan said in a briefing Tuesday following the phone call.

“We would provide additional defensive material to the Ukrainian’s above and beyond that which we are already providing. And we would fortify our NATO allies on the eastern flank with additional capabilities in response to such an escalation.”

Biden also told Putin there’s “another option” of “de-escalation and diplomacy” pointing to actions taken following the Cold War.

Sullivan said there was “a lot of give and take” on the call adding, “There was no finger waging. But the President was crystal clear about where the United States stands on all of these issues.”

Sullivan said Biden “welcomed” the opportunity to engage “clearly and directly” with Putin.

Sullivan added that after the call Biden spoke with the leaders of France, Germany, Italy and the UK to debrief them and will be speaking the leaders of both houses of congress shortly.

Biden will also speak to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Thursday.

On next steps, Biden and Putin agreed that their teams would follow up on items discussed Tuesday, Sullivan said.

Sullivan said that in addition to diplomatic channels, the US will also prepare for all contingencies including “through the preparation of specific responses to Russian escalation should they be required."

3:53 p.m. ET, December 7, 2021

Here's what Biden and Putin discussed, according to a White House readout of the call 

President Biden “voiced the deep concerns of the United States and our European Allies about Russia’s escalation of forces surrounding Ukraine” and made clear to Russian President Vladimir Putin that the US and its allies “would respond with strong economic and other measures in the event of military escalation,” according to a White House readout of the call.

“President Biden reiterated his support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and called for de-escalation and a return to diplomacy. The two presidents tasked their teams to follow up, and the U.S. will do so in close coordination with allies and partners,” the readout said.

The two leaders also discussed “the U.S.-Russia dialogue on Strategic Stability, a separate dialogue on ransomware, as well as joint work on regional issues such as Iran.”

The call lasted two hours and one minute. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan will brief reporters at 2 p.m. ET from the White House briefing room.