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President Biden is scheduled to speak again with Russian President Putin

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It's said that many people rarely talk by phone anymore. People text or email or DM or whatever, but that apparently does not apply to the presidents of the United States and Russia. President Biden speaks by phone with Vladimir Putin today, their second talk this month. NPR's Charles Maynes is covering this story, and I want to pause to note Charles is a familiar voice on our air. He has been for a while, but he is now formally NPR's Moscow correspondent. So, Charles, welcome aboard, officially.

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: Wow. Thanks, Steve. Appreciate it. It's an honor and a privilege.

INSKEEP: It's good to have your insights. And what do you know about this call?

MAYNES: Well, you know, the White House announced the call only yesterday, saying Putin had requested to speak with Biden. The Kremlin spokesman here just confirmed that Putin thought the conversation was necessary and important to have. They also confirmed the call will take place quite late. It's at 3:30 in the afternoon in Washington, but that's 11:30 p.m. here. The White House said they expect that the two leaders would discuss a range of issues that includes upcoming diplomatic engagements. I think that's another way of saying they want to talk about efforts to defuse the situation around Ukraine and this buildup of Russian forces there that has the U.S. fearing of an invasion and warning Russia of massive sanctions, should it take military action. Now, if you're looking for hints as to how that will go, Putin just posted a New Year's message to the Kremlin website, saying he was convinced that effective dialogue with Biden was possible.

INSKEEP: Is it better understood what Russia is aiming at when it puts troops on the border with Ukraine?

MAYNES: Yeah. Well, fundamentally, this is about Russia trying to essentially block Ukraine's desire to move towards the West. To thwart that, Russia launched a proxy war in East Ukraine in 2014. This is where Russian-backed separatists have this simmering war with the government in Kiev. But this latest Russian buildup seems to be a way for Moscow to force a conversation with the U.S. about something else, which is NATO's presence along Russia's borders. You know, Putin aired these concerns, what he's called his red lines, in a video conference call with Biden earlier this month. He spelled them out again at this annual press conference he gave last week. Let's listen in just a bit.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: So here, Putin says that any further movement by NATO towards the East is completely unacceptable to Russia, and he argues the U.S. wouldn't tolerate it if the Kremlin was placing its military hardware near America's borders. Now, the Kremlin says it wants security guarantees from the U.S., and it's spelled out conditions. It wants no NATO membership for Ukraine and another former Soviet Republic, Georgia. It says no military presence by NATO or weapon systems along countries bordering Russia, and it wants NATO to pull back its military deployments from central Eastern Europe, places like Poland and the Baltic states. So at the core, what Putin wants is to turn the clock back on NATO's expansion after the end of the Cold War, and he's using the threat of an invasion of Ukraine to try and get it.

INSKEEP: How does all of this look to the other NATO allies, by which I mean Western European powers that are allied with the United States but a lot nearer Russia?

MAYNES: Well, certainly the Eastern Europeans are not happy about this. A lot of them look to NATO as a way to guarantee their security from Moscow's influence. Of course, they - a lot of them were former communist governments taken over by the Kremlin in - after World War II. But I think, you know, of terms of what the Russian demands are, you know, is - the question here is, it a bargaining chip? Are they trying to, you know, kind of create a maximalist stance and see what they can get? Or is it an excuse to justify Kremlin military actions when and if diplomacy fails?

INSKEEP: NPR's Charles Maynes is in Moscow. Thanks.

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