Biden assures Zelensky he will 'stand up firmly' for Ukraine's sovereignty in Putin summit

Biden, Ukrainian president talked 'at some length,' national security adviser Jake Sullivan says

President Biden told Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Monday that he will "stand up firmly" for Ukraine’s sovereignty during his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin next week, while extending an invitation to the White House later this summer. 

White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters that President Biden had a call with Zelensky Monday afternoon and the two leaders were able to "talk at some length." 

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Sullivan said the call was one Biden had "been planning to make" in advance of his trip to Europe this week for the G-7 and NATO summits, and before his meeting in Geneva on June 16 with Putin. 

"President Biden told President Zelensky that he will stand up firmly for Ukraine’s sovereignty, territorial integrity and its aspirations as we go forward," Sullivan said. 

Sullivan added that the president told Zelensky "he looks forward to welcoming him to the White House this summer after he returns from Europe." 

Ukrainian comedian and presidential candidate Volodymyr Zelenski speaks to his supporters at his headquarters after the second round of presidential elections in Kiev, Ukraine, Sunday, April 21, 2019. 

Ukrainian comedian and presidential candidate Volodymyr Zelenski speaks to his supporters at his headquarters after the second round of presidential elections in Kiev, Ukraine, Sunday, April 21, 2019.  (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)

But Sullivan went on to defend Biden’s set meeting with Putin, saying that there is "no substitute for face-to-face engagement." 

"Meeting face-to-face is not just something you do with Vladimir Putin," Sullivan said, noting the president will meet with "35, 36" leaders on this trip. 

"We don’t think in terms of U.S.-Russia summits being about deliverables," he said. "If you’re going to wait for significant deliverables, you’re going to be waiting for a long time." 

In terms of timing of the Biden-Putin summit, Sullivan said it is "hard" to "find a better context" for a meeting with the Russian president, after Biden will have spent time with allies from democracies around the world. 

"The relationship between the United States and Russia is not about a relationship of trust. It is about a relationship of verification, a relationship of clarifying what our expectations are and about laying out – if certain kinds of harmful activities continue to occur – there will be responses from the United States," Sullivan said. "We will lay those out for Putin in this meeting." 

Sullivan said that Putin will be able to "understand fully where the U.S. stands, and what we intend to do." 

"We believe, fundamentally, that our capacity to ensure that harmful and disruptive activities against the United States do not continue unabated is to be able to communicate clearly, directly, not by negotiating in public, but by explicating our position and our capabilities in private," Sullivan said. 

Sullivan added that the Biden administration has already dealt with a range of issues with Russia, including their move in imposing "costs for election interference and solar winds," and the "range of issues in the cyber and ransomware domain." 

"It is an effective and appropriate context and time period to have this summit," Sullivan said. 

Biden and Putin are expected to discuss a range of issues, including Iran and North Korea's nuclear capabilities, Syria, the Arctic, strategic stability, arms control, climate change, COVID-19 and more.

Biden is also expected to raise the issue of Russia-based ransomware attacks with Putin during their summit, as the U.S. has dealt with a number of ransomware assaults in recent weeks. 

The latest ransomware assault last week shut down the U.S.-based meat plants of the world’s largest meatpacker, Brazil-based JBS. The White House said the hack was likely carried out by a criminal group based in Russia. That attack came just weeks after the largest U.S. fuel pipeline, the East Coast's Colonial pipeline, was targeted by a criminal group originating in Russia.

The Biden administration declined to condemn Putin after the Colonial pipeline attack and stressed that the U.S. did not believe Russia's government was involved. However, shifting tone, the White House later said Putin and the government have "a role to play in stopping and preventing these attacks." 

But Sullivan told reporters Monday that ransomware is a "national security priority," specifically related to critical infrastructure in the U.S., and maintained that the president will "treat it as such in the G-7 and on every stop along the way" on his trip. 

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The U.S. and Russia have long competed on a global scale, and where the U.S. exceeds Russian capabilities, as in the case with the U.S. military, Putin has relied on other factors to bolster Russian dominance – including cyber-strikes. 

Meanwhile, Biden and Putin are also expected to again discuss the intent of the U.S. and Russia to pursue a "strategic stability dialogue on a range of arms control and emerging security issues" to build on the extension of the New START Treaty, according to the White House. The START Treaty places verifiable limits on all Russian deployed intercontinental-range nuclear weapons. The treaty began on Feb. 5, 2011, and according to the State Department, the U.S. and the Russian Federation have agreed to extend it through Feb. 4, 2026.

Biden has sought to pressure Russia though economic sanctions, imposing penalties last week on Russian companies and ships for their work on a natural gas pipeline in Europe, though the Biden administration spared the German company overseeing the project – leading to frustration from both Republican and Democratic lawmakers. 

And last month, the Biden administration imposed a raft of new sanctions on Russia for its attempted interference in the 2020 election and a Kremlin-linked cyberattack that penetrated multiple federal agencies.

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The measures sanctioned 32 entities and individuals who sought to influence the outcome of the November election last year under orders from the Russian government. The White House also expelled 10 Russian diplomats working in Washington, including some intelligence officers.

In addition to those actions, the Biden administration barred U.S. financial institutions from buying Russian bonds directly from the Russian central bank, Finance Ministry and sovereign wealth fund, limiting Moscow’s ability to borrow money. Those limits will take effect June 14. 

Meanwhile, Sullivan said Monday the president is going on his trip to Europe "from a position of strength," and with the intent to "show the rest of the world what America is capable of." 

"We will show that the U.S. retains the profound capacity to help rally the world’s democracies to solve big problems," Sullivan said. 

The Associated Press contributed to this report.