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The national flag of Ukraine flies over the town of Kramatorsk

WORLD NEWS: Biden says he is crafting a plan for Russia-Ukraine crisis

FILE PHOTO: The national flag of Ukraine flies over the town of Kramatorsk, Ukraine November 25, 2021. Picture taken with a drone on November 25, 2021. REUTERS/Valentyn Ogirenko

December 3, 2021

By Trevor Hunnicutt and Steve Holland

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -U.S. President Joe Biden said on Friday he is developing comprehensive initiatives to make it difficult for Russian President Vladimir Putin to invade Ukraine, as the two leaders prepared for talks.

A call between the two is anticipated in days as officials fear a simmering conflict in eastern Ukraine could erupt into open war.

Ukraine’s defense minister Oleksii Reznikov, citing intelligence reports, warned earlier on Friday that Russia has placed more than 94,000 troops near Ukraine’s borders and may be gearing up for a large-scale military offensive at the end of January.

“What I am doing is putting together what I believe to be the most comprehensive and meaningful set of initiatives to make it very, very difficult for Mr. Putin to go ahead and do what people are worried he’s going to do,” Biden said, without going into detail.

He told reporters that his administration had been in “constant contact” with Ukraine and European allies about the situation. He also said he had not yet spoken to Putin.

U.S. and Ukrainian officials warned again this week that severe economic sanctions are on the table against Russia.

“Since the beginning of this administration we have demonstrated that the United States and our allies are willing to use a number of tools to address harmful Russian actions, and we will not hesitate from making use of those and other tools in the future,” said a senior U.S. official when asked about the plan Biden is developing.

For its part, Moscow has accused Ukraine and the United States of destabilizing behavior and suggested that Kyiv might be preparing to launch its own offensive in eastern Ukraine, which the Ukrainian authorities strongly deny.

Ukrainian tensions set the backdrop for the first call between the U.S. president and his Russian counterpart since July. Officials have been negotiating the call in recent weeks.

The Kremlin said on Friday that Russia and the United States had a tentative date and time for a video summit between Putin and Biden in the coming days, but that Moscow was waiting for Washington to finalize it.

A U.S. official did not confirm a date but told Reuters the call is likely to happen as soon as next week.

Biden already imposed sanctions on Russia in April and has left open the possibility of more. But Washington hopes that continued direct engagement will lower the temperature at a time when relations are at their lowest level since the end of the Cold War and the demise of the USSR.

“We want open lines of communication with the Russians,” said one senior State Department official. “Especially in times of tension, it’s important that we have these channels of dialogue.”

A glimpse into what a Biden-Putin call might look like was offered by a meeting among lower level officials on Thursday.

In Stockholm, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov that there would be “severe costs” if Moscow escalates conflict, a message Biden appears prepared to reiterate.

Russian officials, meanwhile, said Putin would press his case for legally binding security guarantees from the West that NATO will not admit Ukraine as a member or deploy missile systems there to target Russia.

As in their past talks, including a June face-to-face meeting in Geneva, other issues are likely to include cybersecurity, arms issues, Afghanistan, Iran, Libya and Syria.

(Reporting by Trevor Hunnicutt and Steve Holland; additional reporting by Humeyra Pamuk; editing by Jonathan Oatis and Dan Grebler.)

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