President Joe Biden and White House officials are seeking to clarify statements the president made on Jan. 19 suggesting that a “minor incursion” from Russia against Ukraine would elicit a lesser response from the United States and its allies than a full-scale invasion of Ukraine would.
Russia has amassed roughly 100,000 troops along its border with Ukraine and in Russian-annexed Crimea in recent weeks. While Western states say that they’re prepared for a Russian invasion of Ukraine, Russia denies that it’s planning an attack. But Moscow has demanded a promise from NATO to never admit Ukraine as a member.
A series of high-level talks between the United States and Russia have yet to ease tensions.
Biden and his administration have been clear both publicly and in talks with the Kremlin that any further invasion of Ukraine by Russia would result in “severe” sanctions by the United States and its allies.
But at a Jan. 19 press conference, Biden appeared to suggest that a minor incursion by Russia could lead to some disagreement regarding what actions to take in response.
“I think what you’re going to see is that Russia will be held accountable if it invades,” he said. “And it depends on what it does. It’s one thing if it’s a minor incursion, and then we end up having a fight about what to do and not do, et cetera.”
Biden was asked later in the conference to clarify that statement.
“If it’s a—something significantly short of a significant invasion—or not even significant, just major military forces coming across—for example, it’s one thing to determine that if they continue to use cyber efforts, well, we can respond the same way, with cyber,” he said.
Biden then went on to say that there are differences between what some NATO countries are “willing to do depending on what happens,” noting that it’s important that NATO is on “the same page.”
Following the conference, White House press secretary Jen Psaki put out a statement reiterating the White House’s stance on the situation between Russia and Ukraine and offering some clarity on Biden’s comments.
“President Biden has been clear with the Russian President: If any Russian military forces move across the Ukrainian border, that’s a renewed invasion, and it will be met with a swift, severe, and united response from the United States and our Allies,” the statement reads.
“President Biden also knows from long experience that the Russians have an extensive playbook of aggression short of military action, including cyberattacks and paramilitary tactics. And he affirmed today that those acts of Russian aggression will be met with a decisive, reciprocal, and united response.”
Biden also began an infrastructure meeting on Jan. 20 by saying, “If any assembled Russian units move across the Ukrainian border, that is an invasion.
“Let there be no doubt that if Putin makes this choice, Russia will pay a heavy price.”
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky also made a clear reference to Biden’s press conference statement.
“We want to remind the great powers that there are no minor incursions and small nations. Just as there are no minor casualties and little grief from the loss of loved ones,” Zelensky wrote on Twitter in both Ukrainian and English.
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson also addressed Biden’s comments.
“Be in no doubt that if Russia were to make any kind of incursion into Ukraine on any scale, whatever, I think that that would be a disaster, not just for Ukraine but Russia. It would be a disaster for the world,” Johnson told reporters on Jan. 20.
“And the UK stands squarely behind the sovereignty and integrity of Ukraine.”
At Biden’s Jan. 19 press conference, he went further than he ever has before in predicting that Russia will move forward with its invasion when he reiterated that the decision lies solely with President Vladimir Putin.
“I’m not so sure he is certain what he is going to do. My guess is he will move in,” Biden said. “He has to do something.”
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken met ministers from the UK, France, and Germany in Berlin on Jan. 20 and is set to meet his Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, in Geneva, Switzerland, on Jan. 21.