US President Joe Biden said on Wednesday he believes Russia will invade Ukraine and warned President Vladimir Putin his country would pay a “dear price” in lives lost and a possible shutdown of the global banking system if it does.
Biden, speaking at a news conference to mark his first anniversary in office, also said a “minor incursion” from Russia would provoke a minor response. He later tried to clarify that he was referring to a non-military action, such as a cyberattack, which would receive a similar reciprocal response, and that if Russian forces cross the border into Ukraine and kill Ukrainian fighters, “that changes everything. ”
But the comments also hinted at the challenge of keeping the United States and its NATO allies united in their response to Russia. Explaining the minor incursion comment, he said “it is very important that we keep everyone in NATO on the same page.”
The news conference came at a critical time in Europe as Russia has amassed 100,000 troops near the Ukrainian border and a series of talks in Europe last week have failed to ease tensions. Secretary of State Antony Blinken will meet Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Geneva on Friday. On Wednesday, Blinken met with Ukraine’s president in Kiev, and on Thursday he heads to Berlin for talks with allies.
Biden reiterated that he didn’t think Putin had made a final decision on whether to invade, but speculated that “I guess he’ll move on.”
Even after he tried to clarify his comments about a possible NATO response to a “minor incursion” by Russia, the White House moved quickly to make it clear that Biden was not telegraphing to Putin that the United States would tolerate any military action. against Ukraine.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki noted that the Russians could resort to an “extensive playbook of aggression short of military action, including cyberattacks and paramilitary tactics.”
“President Biden has been clear with the Russian president: If any Russian military forces cross the border into Ukraine, this is a renewed invasion, and it will be met with a swift, stern and united response from the United States and our allies.” Psaki said in a statement.
As the White House cleaned up, Biden faced a barrage of criticism for the “minor incursion” comment.
“This is the wrong way to view this threat,” said Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, who was part of a bipartisan congressional delegation that traveled to Kiev over the weekend to meet with Ukrainian officials. “Any Russian military incursion into Ukraine must be seen as a major incursion because it will destabilize Ukraine and the freedom-loving countries in Eastern Europe.”
Senator Ben Sasse, R-Nebraska, said Biden effectively “gave Putin the green light to invade Ukraine by prattling about the supposed insignificance of a ‘minor incursion.'”
“He projected weakness, not strength,” Sasse said.
If Russia invades, Biden said, one action being considered was to limit Russian transactions in US financial institutions, including “anything involving dollar denominations.” Biden was referring to potentially limiting Russia’s access to “dollar clearing,” the conversion of payments by banks on behalf of customers in US dollars from rubles or another foreign currency, according to a senior administration official who he was not authorized to comment publicly.
The US president said he believes the decision will be “exclusively” Putin’s and suggested he wasn’t entirely sure Russian officials with whom top White House aides have been negotiating are fully briefed on the thinking. of Putin.
“There is the question of whether the people they are talking to know what he is going to do,” Biden said.
Ukraine, meanwhile, said it was prepared for the worst and would survive any difficulties that came its way. The president urged the country not to panic.
Russian military activity has increased in recent weeks, but the US has not concluded whether Putin plans to invade or whether the show of force is intended to squeeze out security concessions without actual conflict.
Biden, who spoke with Putin twice last month, said he made it clear to him that Russia would face harsh sanctions. Still, he said Putin’s decision could come down to “which side of the bed” he wakes up on.
“He has never seen sanctions like the ones I promised will be imposed if he moves, number 1,” Biden warned. “This is not a cakewalk for Russia,” Biden said. “They will pay a high price immediately” and in the medium and long term “if they do”.
In Kiev, Blinken reiterated Washington’s demands for Russia to de-escalate the situation by withdrawing its forces from the border area, something Moscow has flatly refused to do. And Blinken said he would not give Russia the expected written response to its security demands when he and Lavrov meet in Geneva.
Meanwhile, a senior Russian diplomat said Moscow will not back down from its insistence that the United States formally ban Ukraine from joining NATO and reduce its and the alliance’s military presence in Eastern Europe. Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said Moscow had no intention of invading Ukraine, but its demands for security guarantees were non-negotiable.
The United States and its allies have said that the Russian demands are impossible, that Russia knows they are, and that Putin is using them in part to create a pretext to invade Ukraine, which has strong ethnic and historical ties to Russia. The former Soviet republic aspires to join the alliance, although it has little hope of doing so in the foreseeable future.
Blinken urged Western nations to remain united in the face of Russian aggression. He also assured the Ukrainian leader of NATO’s support and called on the Ukrainians to stand firm.
Blinken told Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy that the United States and its allies were steadfast in standing behind his country and its democratic aspirations against Russian attempts to incite division and discord through “relentless aggression.”
“Our strength depends on preserving our unity, and that includes unity within Ukraine,” he told Zelenskyy. “I think one of Moscow’s longstanding goals has been to try to sow divisions between and within our countries, and we simply cannot and will not allow them to do that.”
The Biden administration had previously said it was providing an additional $200 million (€176 million) in defensive military aid to Ukraine. Blinken said more assistance will come and that it will only increase if Russia invades.
Washington and its allies have kept the door open for possible further talks on arms control and confidence-building measures to reduce the potential for hostilities.
Ryabkov insisted, however, that there can be no meaningful talks on those issues if the West does not heed Russia’s main requests for NATO non-expansion with a formal response. He said that the Russian demands are “a package, and we are not prepared to divide it into different parts, to start processing some of them at the expense of remaining inactive in others.”
However, Blinken said a formal response was not expected. “I will not submit a document at that time to Foreign Minister Lavrov,” he said. “We need to see where we are and see if there are any opportunities left to pursue diplomacy and pursue dialogue.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism