US President Joe Biden has voiced “deep concerns” over the massing of Russian troops along Ukraine’s eastern border, and threatened “strong economic and other measures” in a rare talk held via video link with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin. 

According to US security analysts, satellite images show a build-up of around 175,000 Russian troops on Ukraine’s eastern border, intensifying fears of an imminent Russian invasion. 

Many are describing the call, requested by the US, as the highest-stakes leader-to-leader conversation since Biden took office over 10 months ago. 

Today’s meeting comes after talks were held last night between the US, UK, France, Germany and Italy, in which leaders agreed to show a united front in support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and formed a joint strategy “to impose significant and severe harm on the Russian economy” should it choose to invade. 

Measures being considered by Nato leaders include cutting off Russia from the international financial settlement system, and imposing restrictions on banks similar to the ones that have crippled the Iranian economy. 

These measures beg the question, how much can diplomacy really help to diffuse the situation? And will a stern phone conversation with Biden have any real impact on the Kremlin’s ultimate course of action? 

Elisabeth Braw, from the American Enterprise Institute, brands the meeting a very positive step. There is unlikely to be a breakthrough, just as there wasn’t during Biden and Putin’s June meeting in Geneva, but “it’s absolutely vital that these two leaders have some kind of personal rapport and an ongoing dialogue” in order to “understand each other’s intentions”.

“Personal relations are the basis of diplomacy. You don’t conduct diplomacy by issuing statements.” 

Will a phone call alone convince Russia not to invade Ukraine? Unlikely, Braw admits. “But I think Russia will come to the conclusion on its own; that it makes no sense to invade Ukraine.”

A full-blown invasion is high risk for the Kremlin. Russia knows the consequences it would experience as a result of doing so would be quite significant. “You can be sure there will be some sort of international retaliation. And for what gain?”

Crucially, this is a very different situation to Crimea. In 2014, Russia had a much stronger imperative: Sevastopol, the largest city in Crimea and a major port on the Black Sea.

Russia saw Sevastopol sliding out of its reach and it relies on this port, in order to gain access to oceans. “That was a strategic location that it absolutely needed for its Navy. It couldn’t let Sevastopol slide.”

This time round, there is less to gain from an invasion. And, Braw points out, “Putin is not a lunatic; he is a very skilled tactician. He wouldn’t do things that would harm his country.”

As Reaction columnist Tim Marshall has noted, the Russians would be equally nervous about a military offensive putting the Nord Stream 2 pipeline plans in further jeopardy – a project that is crucial to Moscow’s economic and strategic plans. What’s more, while most are sceptical that the West would station troops on the ground in Ukraine, they would do their best to arm what was left of the country. Indeed, the UK and Ukraine have now finalised a treaty enabling Kiev to receive loans from London to buy British warships and missiles.

In some respects, the current situation is the best of both worlds for the Kremlin. “I don’t think Putin is seriously entertaining invading Ukraine,” Braw says. “But he is enjoying threatening Kiev and keeping the international community in suspense. He’s achieving a lot without doing very much.”