President Joe Biden’s prediction that Russia will invade Ukraine and his suggestion that the West’s response could be more muted for a “minor” incursion drew swift criticism from Washington to Kyiv, with some accusing him of giving Russia the green light to attack.
Biden sought to clarify his position on Thursday, saying that any Russian troop movement into Ukraine will be seen as an invasion. But Ukraine's leader had already fired back to highlight the stakes.
“We want to remind the great powers that there are no minor incursions and small nations," Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said on Twitter hours before Biden's new comments. "Just as there are no minor casualties and little grief from the loss of loved ones.”
At a news conference Wednesday to mark a year in office that came as his administration grappled with how to handle the prospect of an imminent Russian military assault on Ukraine, Biden spoke with unusual candor for a world leader in the midst of such a crisis.
“My guess is he will move in. He has to do something,” he said of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has overseen the buildup of more than 100,000 troops on Ukraine’s doorstep but repeatedly denied planning to invade.
Biden said his counterpart in the Kremlin “will be held accountable” if he does so, but appeared to suggest that divisions within the NATO alliance could lead to a milder response if Russia mounts a more limited attack.
For weeks, such speculation about Moscow’s intentions — and the West’s capacity to respond — has dominated conversations in the corridors of power across Europe. On Wednesday, it was voiced publicly from the White House.
In an apparent effort to clarify his position, Biden told reporters Thursday that he had been "absolutely clear with President Putin. He has no misunderstanding, any, any assembled Russian units move across the Ukrainian border, that is an invasion.”
There is, he said, "no doubt at all that if Putin makes this choice, Russia will pay a heavy price.”
The White House had also moved quickly to clarify that any Russian action would be met with “a swift, severe, and united response,” while Vice President Kamala Harris defended the remarks in a tense interview on NBC’s “TODAY” show Thursday.
Biden's words had already drawn concern at home and abroad, however.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba warned that Biden’s comments could invite Putin to act. “We should not give Putin the slightest chance to play with quasi-aggression or small incursion operations,” he told The Wall Street Journal, adding that there was “no doubt that President Biden is committed to Ukraine.”
In Washington, Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, said that “any incursion by the Russian military into Ukraine should be viewed as a major incursion because it will destabilize Ukraine and freedom-loving countries in Eastern Europe.” Portman was part of a bipartisan delegation of senators who traveled to Kyiv on Monday to discuss the crisis with Zelenskyy and other Ukrainian officials.
Former U.S. ambassador John Herbst told NBC News that Biden’s “unfortunate remarks” on Wednesday had “set back the administration’s solid efforts to deter a new Kremlin escalation in Ukraine.”
“It is good that the administration put out correctives quickly, but the problem is that Putin and other observers might still conclude that the president’s remarks mean a ‘limited invasion’ of Ukraine would not prompt a strong U.S. reaction,” said Herbst, now at the Atlantic Council think tank in Washington.
For some experts, Biden’s answers were revealing — a public voicing of long-held concerns that divisions between the U.S. and its allies could hinder their ability to deter or punish any Russian aggression.
“NATO and the European Union are certainly not united in their responses …. so there has been quite a lot of friction with the United States,” said Emily Ferris, a research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute defense and security think tank in London.
Sweeping sanctions on Russia’s economy could harm nearby countries with strong trade links to Moscow, with much of Europe heavily reliant on Russian gas exports. But some, such as the former Soviet Baltic states that neighbor Russia, want a hard-line approach and have stepped up their own warnings and military preparedness in recent days.
Biden’s prediction that Russia will invade Ukraine could even further escalate tensions and might not have been well-received in Moscow, Ferris added.
Putin has demanded that Ukraine and other former Soviet states be banned from joining NATO and that the Western alliance’s military deployments in the region are rolled back.
The U.S. and NATO have rejected those demands, leaving talks at a stalemate. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is in Europe this week for a fresh diplomatic push and was in Berlin for meetings with European officials Thursday as the allies sought to present a strong and united front. He sought to dispel any doubts about the response a Russian attack would face.
Blinken said in a statement Thursday that the U.S. was imposing sanctions on four individuals “connected to ongoing Russian intelligence service-directed influence activities designed to destabilize Ukraine,” two of whom were members of the country’s parliament.
But while some took issue with Biden’s stark public assessment of the situation facing Western powers, other experts disagreed that his words indicated any lack of resolve to defend Ukraine.
“This Biden-greenlighted-an-invasion-of-Ukraine is absurd. Biden has built a coalition to impose major sanctions on Russia should Putin invade. Biden also pledged $650 million in security assistance to Ukraine. That’s deterring, not greenlighting war,” tweeted Michael McFaul, an NBC News contributor and a former U.S. ambassador to Russia.
Domitilla Sagramoso, a Russia expert and senior lecturer at King’s College London, also pushed back on accusations that Biden may be signaling only qualified support for Ukraine in the face of Russian aggression.
“I think that Biden was trying to explain that there might be different responses to the different kinds of threats. But he expressed himself incorrectly, and he unfortunately sent the wrong message. However, the latest White House statement sends a very clear message that any kind of aggressive action by Russia in Ukraine is going to get a serious response,” she said.
“The nuances we see among Western allies are completely understandable," she said, adding that “it is clear that on the substance there is full agreement among allies.”