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Biden is in a high-stakes game of telephone diplomacy between Ukraine and Russia

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

As thousands of Russian troops mass along the eastern border of Ukraine, President Biden is in the middle of a high-stakes game of telephone diplomacy - first on Tuesday, a call with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Then earlier today, Biden spoke with his Ukrainian counterpart, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, to debrief on that Putin call - next, a call with nine NATO allies in the region.

NPR's Charles Maynes has been monitoring all the switchboards from Moscow. Hey there, Charles.

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: Hi there. How are you?

KELLY: Hey. So let's start with today's call. What do we know about what Biden and Zelenskyy talked about today?

MAYNES: Well, we know the conversation lasted about an hour and 15 minutes. The White House says Biden informed Zelenskyy that the U.S. had reiterated to Putin its support for Ukraine's independence, and he again expressed the U.S.'s concern over the Russian buildup of forces along Ukraine's border. Now, Zelenskyy's team in Kiev says Biden assured them the U.S. would help Ukraine fend off Russia any time, without getting exactly into how. Again, from Kiev, they say Biden assured any decision on Ukraine's possible future in the NATO alliance depends solely on Ukraine and NATO members. Now, that is an important detail because Biden seemed to acquiesce to Russia yesterday a bit when he announced he'd invited Russia to join a NATO meeting to discuss Moscow's concerns relative to NATO. Moreover, Biden said U.S. troops on the ground to defend Ukraine was not in the cards, although he's warning of punishing sanctions if Moscow invades.

And I asked Olena Snigyr, a political analyst in Kiev, if Biden's comments had shaken Ukraine's confidence in the U.S.

OLENA SNIGYR: (Speaking Ukrainian).

MAYNES: And here, Snigyr says that global leaders can negotiate, and Ukrainians can't, of course, rule out that Biden makes a compromise that's more acceptable to Russia than to Ukraine. But that won't change Ukrainians' willingness to fight if necessary.

KELLY: And what's the word from there in Moscow? Do we know what Vladimir Putin made of his call with Biden?

MAYNES: Well, yeah. Putin made quite extensive remarks yesterday. He called the conversation with Biden open and constructive. And he said he thought the most important thing was that both sides were continuing this dialogue. In fact, Moscow's sending along some security proposals to Washington to consider in the coming days. But Putin also repeated his contention - the main one - that NATO expansion to Ukraine would pose a grave threat to Russia. Let's listen in.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: So here, Putin is saying Russia can't ignore the prospect of Ukraine joining NATO because that would all but guarantee NATO troops and missiles would be housed right on Russia's borders, on Ukrainian soil. And Putin added that he came away from the talks with Biden convinced that the U.S. president had heard his concerns. Just in case Biden hadn't, Putin's deputy foreign minister today said escalating tensions over Ukraine could lead to a repeat of the Cuban missile crisis of 1963.

KELLY: Huh.

MAYNES: That's when the Soviet Union put missiles in Cuba, just a few miles from the U.S., and the world came close to nuclear war.

KELLY: Indeed - let me pause you just for a second 'because we're talking about all this diplomatic back and forth. What is the actual situation there on the Russian-Ukrainian border right now? How tense is it?

MAYNES: It is tense. Right - today we heard Russia accuse the Ukrainian government of moving heavy artillery towards the conflict zone in eastern Ukraine and preparing an assault. The head of Russia's armed forces, Valery Gerasimov, said Ukraine was taking dangerous steps by bringing in helicopters and unmanned aerial vehicles and airplanes to the east, where pro-Moscow separatists currently hold territory. And he warned that provocations aimed at retaking these territories would be suppressed by Moscow.

KELLY: And just - that's reminding me of something that U.S. Secretary of State Tony Blinken said recently, that we have seen this playbook before. Just briefly explain what he meant.

MAYNES: Yeah. Blinken meant the situation where Russia provokes Kiev into reacting and then blames Ukraine for starting a fight the Kremlin was looking for anyway. It's worth noting that Kiev, of course, does want these territories back. But Zelenskyy, in his call today, said Biden said Ukraine had no plans to try and take it by force.

KELLY: That's our man in Moscow, Charles Maynes. Thank you.

MAYNES: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.