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U.S. President Joe Biden will meet with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin virtually on Tuesday to address the major issue of increasing Russian military presence at the border with Ukraine—and the spectre of a potential invasion.
The two men are due to speak around noon, Eastern Time. U.S. intelligence obtained by The Washington Post and other outlets in November suggests that the Kremlin may be planning to invade early in 2022, involving up to 175,000 troops—raising the alarm in Washington and across Europe.
The Kremlin has insisted that it does not intend to launch an attack and has accused the West of making claims to conceal their own alleged aggression.
It is not clear whether the build up of troops signals an imminent attack or whether it is to persuade the U.S. and NATO allies to refrain from sending troops and weapons to the Ukraine.
Tensions remain between Russia and Ukraine since the latter declared independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, especially over the eastern part of Ukraine called Donbas.
In February 2014, when Russian invaded Crimea in Eastern Ukraine, it looked to take back land it saw as Russian.
At the time, Putin said the annexation of the Crimean Peninsula was to "to ensure proper conditions for the people of Crimea to be able to freely express their will."
Ukraine and many other nations argued that the annexation was a violation of Ukraine's sovereignty, while Russian backed a separatist insurgency in Eastern Ukraine.
Since then, the conflict has raged in Donbas, and 14,000 people have been killed as a result. A fragile ceasefire agreement—called Minsk II—brokered by France and Germany in 2015 helped end a large-scale conflict, but it did not achieve peace, with violence flaring up sporadically in Eastern Ukraine.
Despite the Minsk agreement being seen by many as win for Moscow, as it required Ukraine to grant autonomy to the rebel regions, the Kremlin has accused Ukraine of failing to honor the peace deal and criticized the West for not urging Kyiv to comply.
Ukraine has accused Russia-backed separatists of repeatedly violating ceasefire agreements, though the Kremlin has denied this.
Policy analysts and think tanks have said Moscow is intent on regaining imperial control of Kyiv. Putin has repeatedly tried to lay claim to large swathes of Ukrainian territory that he says are historic parts of Russia, which were given to the Ukraine by Soviet Union leaders in 1991.
Moscow has also strongly objected to Ukraine's ambitions to join NATO and has criticized the transatlantic alliance for alleged military aggression in Eastern Ukraine.
In November, The Military Times reported that the head of Ukraine's military intelligence said that Russia could be planning to attack in January or February.
The report interviewed Brigadier General Kyrylo Budanov, deputy head of Ukraine's military intelligence service, who said the attack could see Russia try to conquer all Ukrainian territory up to the Dnieper River, including Kyiv.
But an attack isn't guaranteed: Putin may be trying to test the unity of the European Union and NATO allies, as well as exert Russia's influence of Ukraine in other ways. Moscow has already been making attempts to destabilize Ukraine, Budanov said, through COVID-19 protests and stoking unrest through Ukraine's economy and energy supplies.
The Ukraine conflict comes against a backdrop of several issues of contention between Moscow and Washington. On Tuesday, Biden and Putin are also likely to discuss cyber security and Moscow's support for the oppressive regime in Syria of Bashar al-Assad. U.S. companies have seen several ransomware attacks over the last few years, many believed to have originated from Russia.
Ahead of the talks, a senior U.S. official warned that it would send re-enforcements to NATO's eastern flank in response to a Russian invasion of Ukraine, as well as severe new economic measures.
Given both men's long careers in politics, Biden and Putin have already met several times in the past. They first met at the Kremlin in 2011 when Biden was vice president under Barack Obama. The meeting was frosty, with Biden claiming later that he told the Russian leader "I don't think you have a soul."
Biden said Putin responded "We understand one another."
More recently, they met in Geneva in June 16 but made little concrete process of calming relations between their two countries.
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