World: Putin and Biden are circling each other warily (opinion)

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Just two days after President Joe Biden invited Russian President Vladimir Putin to meet in person, the Biden administration is rolling out a series of tough sanctions designed not just to signal unhappiness with the actions of the Russian regime, but to have a significant diplomatic and economic impact. Tensions between the United States and Russia, already about as high as they've been at any time since the Cold War, are about to get hotter.

Vladimir Putin wearing a suit and tie: BERLIN, GERMANY - OCTOBER 19: Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting to discuss the Ukrainian peace process at the German federal Chancellery on October 19, 2016 in Berlin, Germany. The leaders of Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany, known as the Normandy Four, met in Berlin to discuss implementation of the peace plan known as the Minsk Protocol, a roadmap for resolving the conflict in Ukraine after Russian forces invaded in 2014 and annexed the peninsula of Crimea. The United States has threatened renewed sanctions on Russia if the country did not either implement the plan in the coming months or arrive at a plan on how to do so. (Photo by Adam Berry/Getty Images) © Adam Berry/Getty Images Europe/Getty Images BERLIN, GERMANY - OCTOBER 19: Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting to discuss the Ukrainian peace process at the German federal Chancellery on October 19, 2016 in Berlin, Germany. The leaders of Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany, known as the Normandy Four, met in Berlin to discuss implementation of the peace plan known as the Minsk Protocol, a roadmap for resolving the conflict in Ukraine after Russian forces invaded in 2014 and annexed the peninsula of Crimea. The United States has threatened renewed sanctions on Russia if the country did not either implement the plan in the coming months or arrive at a plan on how to do so. (Photo by Adam Berry/Getty Images)

As Russia masses tens of thousands of troops along its border with Ukraine, raising fears that it may be planning an invasion, Biden is sending an unequivocal message that the acquiescent days of the Trump administration are over.

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The President is making plain those Russian actions that the US sees as unacceptable. The point is to punish for what the Putin regime did in the past and to deter more aggressive behavior in the future. The stakes are enormous.

Relations with Russia have deteriorated for years. Former President Trump -- unaccountably -- found it all but impossible to criticize Putin, even as the Russian leader interfered in US elections and US intelligence officials assessed that a Russian military unit sought to pay the Taliban bounties to kill US soldiers. Although the previous administration did impose some sanctions, Trump frequently defended and excused Putin.

Biden vowed to clarify and fortify Washington's stance toward Moscow. Putin, perhaps partly to test Biden's determination, has given Biden plenty of reasons to react, imprisoning regime critic Alexei Navalny and mobilizing troops menacingly near Ukraine.

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Early Thursday, the administration started announcing a slew of sanctions related to Russia's interference in US elections and its occupation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula. That was just the start. The administration is expelling Russian diplomats and imposing sanctions targeting individuals and organizations believed to be involved in the massive SolarWinds cyber hack. Notably, the US's financial sanctions will make it difficult for the Russian government to borrow in US financial markets.

With tensions escalating, Biden's suggestion on Tuesday that the two leaders hold a summit in a third country is a welcome one. The encounter could help prevent an accidental escalation and allow the two get a better sense of where the two countries stand on a number of issues. If well handled, it would help Biden make clear to Putin what behavior will carry the most severe consequences and let him gauge the Russian leader's responses.

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Since taking office, Biden has gone out of his way to fire back at Russia's transgressions. When asked in an interview if he views Putin as "a killer," Biden said yes, prompting Russia to recall its ambassador from Washington for the first time in decades. Biden has spoken up for Navalny, the Putin critic languishing in a Russian jail. But the pushback has been much more than rhetoric.

The US and its allies want to make sure Russia doesn't have another nasty surprise in store on Ukraine, a country already wounded from Putin's stunningly aggressive actions in recent years. The tens of thousands of Russian forces along the border are the largest number since 2014, said White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki.

That's the year Russia sent its "little green men" -- unidentified militias -- into the Crimean Peninsula. While denying its involvement for days, it captured the territory and annexed it in the manner of a 19th century colonial power. It also armed and supported Ukrainian separatists, sparking a war that has left thousands dead.

During the Tuesday phone call, the White House says Biden "emphasized the United States' unwavering commitment to Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity."

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Many questions loom. Is Putin planning to invade? Is he testing Biden, or perhaps trying to boost his sagging domestic support after the atrocities against Navalny and the raging pandemic? Then there are question about the US side. What would Washington do if Putin invades Ukraine?

Russia maintains the troops are there for a military exercise but based on experience, Ukrainians are preparing for the worst, and the US is offering support.

According to multiple reports, not confirmed by the Pentagon, the US Navy is planning to send two warships into the Black Sea. Here is a map. The Black Sea is a strategic body into which Crimea juts. Its shores also include Russia and Ukraine. In response, Russia issued a combination warning and threat telling Americans to stay away from Crimea, "for their own good."

In addition to speaking about the points of friction, a summit would help the two nuclear-armed countries find ways to deal with their differences, and potentially reinforce areas of common interest. Both countries are interested in arms control, stopping nuclear proliferation and preventing international terrorism. Neither Moscow nor Washington wants to see a nuclear Iran or an aggressive North Korea.

On Afghanistan, Biden has just announced a US troop withdrawal, and Putin is undoubtedly happy with the decision. After all, Russian bounties on US soldiers aimed to demoralize Americans into leaving. But Moscow, like Washington, doesn't want Afghanistan to turn into a new haven for terrorists.

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Russia has responded to the summit invitation cautiously. Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the proposal "will be studied." Moscow may be trying to leverage Biden's interest in a meeting in order to derail the oncoming sanctions. According to RIA news agency, Peskov said the summit, "will only be possible taking into account...further steps from our counterparts."

That was an effort to stop Biden's sanctions. It didn't work. Biden had vowed that Putin would "pay a price," for his actions and is following through. In fact, the sanctions were reportedly delayed because he was unhappy with the original proposal, wanting something more far-reaching. Officials said US actions would include "seen and unseen" elements. That is: there's more to the US response than is being made public.

After two decades in power, Putin has a great deal of experience dealing with American leaders. As it happens, there are few other world leaders with the depth of foreign policy experience that Biden brings to his new job. The two leaders are circling each other warily. Will Putin back down in Ukraine? The next move is Russia's.

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