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Joe Biden may find a new test in Vladimir Putin's Ukraine escalation

Russian President Vladimir Putin at a March 18

Russian President Vladimir Putin at a March 18 Moscow concert marking Russia's 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine. Credit: Sputik / AFP via Getty Images / Vyacheslav Prokofyev

In 2019, the U.S. held up delivery of congressionally approved arms support for Ukraine while President Donald Trump famously prodded that nation's newly elected president, Volodymyr Zelensky, to dig up a campaign scandal on the Bidens.

The move failed, the aid went through and Trump was impeached but acquitted. Now on President Joe Biden's watch, Russian rival Vladimir Putin appears intent on escalating hostilities in Crimea — a follow-up to Russia's bitterly denounced 2014 annexation of that territory from Ukraine.

With Trump's diplomatic curtsies to Putin a thing of the past, a key question arises over whether Russia is "testing" the new Biden administration.

On Friday, Biden spoke with Zelensky for the first time as U.S. president. Biden didn't say afterward that the call was "perfect," as Trump said of his own conversation with the Ukrainian president.

This time, the White House "readout" of the call suggested nothing jarring. It said Biden "reaffirmed the United States’ unwavering support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity in the face of Russia’s ongoing aggression in the Donbas and Crimea." The leaders also discussed Zelensky’s internal anti-corruption efforts, which are "central to Ukraine’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations," according to the readout.

Biden's willingness last month in a televised interview to counteract Trump's passivity by calling Putin a "killer" has observers guessing whether U.S.-Russia relations are doomed to enter a new "ice age."

Ukrainian-Russian fighting intensified last week. Four Ukrainian soldiers were killed in a battle against Russian-backed separatists in the Donetsk region, officials said. Russian forces have been building up on the border. European monitors report new weaponry on the pro-Russia side, with artillery exchanges increasing.

The latest clashes ended a July 2020 cease-fire. Recently Russian fighter and bomber flights near allied airspace prompted NATO to scramble its own jets. Late last month, three nuclear-armed Russian submarines surfaced in the Arctic.

On the homefront, the story of Trump's Ukraine skulduggery still leaves loose threads.

Andrii Derkach, a Ukraine lawmaker called "an active Russian agent," was sanctioned in January by the U.S. government for trying to meddle in the U.S. election in November. Trump's then-emissary Rudy Giuliani reportedly met with Derkach in Kyiv in December 2019, but Giuliani's lawyer denies that his client got information from Derkach.

Biden's son Hunter, targeted by Trump during the presidential campaign, has said in a newly published memoir that his service on the board of a Ukrainian gas company wasn't unethical. But Hunter Biden also said he wouldn't do it again.

A close adviser to Zelensky was quoted in February as saying he's willing to help a U.S. probe of Giuliani, as well as a separate effort to strip the ex-mayor of his law license. Results remain hazy.

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