Biden tells Putin 'now is the time to de-escalate' at the Ukrainian border and 'refrain from military action' after he closed Kerch Strait to stop all foreign warships from accessing the region

Biden tells Putin 'now is the time to de-escalate' at the Ukrainian border and 'refrain from military action' after he closed Kerch Strait to stop all foreign warships from accessing the region

18:37 - President Joe Biden on Thursday warned Vladimir Putin it was time to de-escalate in the Ukraine and reminded his Russian counterpart that U.S. sanctions could have been much worse.

Biden extended his offer to Moscow to hold a summit between the two leaders in Europe this summer and, in brief remarks at the White House, said there were areas the two nations could work together.

But he also had tough words for Putin, who has caused concern in the United States and Europe with its actions on the Ukraine border and violations of a cease-fire agreement in the Crimea.

Biden noted that, in his phone call with Putin on Tuesday: 'I express concerned about Russia's military buildup on Ukraine's border and occupied and unoccupied Crimea. I affirmed US support for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine, and I strongly urge him to refrain from any military action.'

'Now is the time to de-escalate,' he added.

The president also said he warned Putin that the series of US sanctions announced Thursday - hitting the Russian government and some entities and individuals with financial penalties - could have been far tougher.

But, the president said, he didn't want to escalate the already high tensions with Moscow.

'I was clear with President Putin we couldn't have gone further, but I chose not to do so. I chose to be proportionate. The United States is not looking to kick off a cycle of escalation and conflict with Russia. We want a stable predictable relationship,' he said.

But, he warned, if Russia hit back, the US would strike harder.

'I urged [Putin] to respond appropriately, not to exceed it, because we can move as well,' he said.

The United States issued the sanctions because of Russian interference in American elections, the SolarWinds cyber attack, and its aggressive actions in the Ukraine. The White House argues any domestic interference or interference with foreign allies is a threat to the US.

'If Russia continues to interfere with our democracy. I'm prepared to take further actions to respond. It is my responsibility as president of the United States to do so,' Biden said.

'Where Russia seeks to violate the interests of the United States we will respond. We will always stand in defense of our country, our institutions, our people and our allies,' the president said.

He said he was hopeful Russia would accept his offer to meet for a summit in a third nation this summer.

'I proposed that we meet in person this summer in Europe,' he said. 'to address the range of issues facing both of our countries. Our teams are discussing that possibility right now.'

Biden's remarks come as the United States cancelled the deployment of two US warships from the Black Sea despite warning Putin there would be 'repercussions' for the troop build-up in Ukraine.

Last week, Turkey said Washington was sending two warships to the Black Sea, in a decision Russia called an unfriendly provocation.

But the Biden administration reversed the decision after the Kremlin warned them to 'stay away for their own good', and gave Putin the chance to ramp up his military presence in Crimea and near the Ukrainian border.

White House officials decided not to send the ships to avoid needlessly escalating the situation with Russia over the Ukraine, a US defense official told Politico.

Hours later, Putin took advantage of Biden's U-turn by closing off the Kerch Strait between Crimea and Russia, blocking all foreign warships from getting to Ukraine until October 2021.

Ukraine said the move was an 'act of war' and were disappointed foreign destroyers had turned around before one of Moscow's biggest escalations in the last 30 days.

The Kerch Strait is a crucial access for the Ukrainian ports of Mairupol and Berdyansk. Commercial ships will still be allowed to pass through, but the blockade leave the region vulnerable in the face of Russian aggression.

Washington's change in the region came on the day Biden announced sweeping new sanctions against Moscow as the White House seeks to rein in Russian aggression while avoiding an all-out war with the Kremlin.

'We have no desire to be in an escalating war with Russia,' a senior administration official said Thursday on a briefing call with reporters, saying the White House doesn't want things 'spinning out of control.'

'We do not seek a downward spiral. We can and think we can avoid that,' the official said.

Officials made it clear, however, that the administration 'will not accept [Russia's] destabilizing behavior that harms the United States, its allies and its partners.

Russia called in America's ambassador in response.

Russia's foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said in a televised briefing that Ambassador John Sullivan had been summoned for a 'difficult conversation.'

And she said that a Russian response to the sanctions was 'unavoidable.'

'Such aggressive behavior, without question, will receive a decisive push back, a response to the sanctions is unavoidable,' she said. 'In Washington, they must realize that it's necessary to pay for the degradation of bilateral relations. Responsibility for what is happening lies entirely on the U.S.'

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