WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden said Thursday that the movement of any Russian units across the Ukrainian border will be considered an invasion and would be met with a "severe and coordinated economic response" from the U.S. and its allies.
"I've been absolutely clear with President Putin. He has no misunderstanding, any, any assembled Russian units move across the Ukrainian border, that is an invasion," Biden told reporters.
"It will be met with a severe and coordinated economic response that I've discussed in detail with our allies as well as laid out very clearly for President Putin," he added.
Biden's remarks came after comments he made in a press conference Wednesday predicting that Russia would invade Ukraine, in which he made a distinction between a “minor incursion” and a full-blown attack. Those comments raised concern among foreign policy experts that the U.S. was indicating Putin had some wiggle room in what he could get away with in Ukraine.
Biden: Russia will pay 'heavy price' if they invade UkraineJan. 20, 202201:15
Biden also stressed on Thursday that the U.S. would take action if Russia attempted to attack Ukraine in "gray zone attacks" — such as cyber attacks or an incursion of Russian forces not in official uniforms.
"We have to be ready to respond to these as well and decisively in a united way with the range of tools at our disposal," the president said.
Vice President Kamala Harris also sought to clarify the U.S. position earlier Thursday, defending Biden's remarks made a day earlier.
In a tense interview on NBC’s “Today" show, co-anchor Savannah Guthrie asked Harris if Biden gave Russian President Vladimir Putin a green light "to take a bite out of Ukraine" during Biden’s Wednesday press conference.
“On the subject of Ukraine, I will tell you that the president has been very clear and we as the United States are very clear," Harris said. "If Putin takes aggressive action, we are prepared to levy serious and severe costs, period.”
The administration has said its “first approach and priority and preference is that these issues could be resolved diplomatically,” Harris said.
“We have also been clear and continue to be clear that if Russia takes aggressive action, it will be met with severe costs,” she reemphasized.
Asked if there’s any amount of land Russia could take that Biden would allow without repercussions, Harris said, “Our interpretation of any country, in this case Russia and Vladimir Putin, denying or violating the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine will be interpreted as aggressive action, and it will be met with a cost a severe cost, period.”
After Biden's mixed messages during the press conference, a senior administration official told reporters in a telephone briefing Wednesday evening that the United States was prepared to impose sweeping sanctions on Russia regardless of the amount of territory seized in a possible invasion of Ukraine.
Guthrie then asked if the threat of severe sanctions by the administration was having no effect on Putin given Biden's statement predicting the Russian president "will move in, he has to do something."
“I'm not going to psychoanalyze President Putin of Russia," Harris responded. "But I will tell you this. It is clear to us that the decision is probably in his hands, and we are prepared to take appropriate action based on whatever he decides to do."
Following Harris' remarks, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy tweeted Thursday, "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. I say this as the President of a great power."
Speaking about the 2022 midterm elections, Guthrie asked about Biden's remarks Wednesday casting doubt on whether the elections would be legitimate. Harris responded by suggesting that Biden’s concerns about voter disenfranchisement are not the same as those of former President Donald Trump, who regularly calls the outcome of the 2020 election into question despite widespread evidence that it was fair and accurate.
“Let's not conflate issues,” Harris said, stressing that the White House is concerned about voters’ access to the ballot box in states that have imposed restrictive voting laws. The Senate, she said, attempted to pass two major voting rights bills Wednesday, but Senate Democrats failed to advance them to a final vote amid unified Republican opposition.
After Harris' interview, White House press secretary Jen Psaki tweeted Thursday: "Lets be clear: @potus was not casting doubt on the legitimacy of the 2022 election. He was making the opposite point: In 2020, a record number of voters turned out in the face of a pandemic, and election officials made sure they could vote and have those votes counted."
"He was explaining that the results would be illegitimate if states do what the former president asked them to do after the 2020 election: toss out ballots and overturn results after the fact. The Big Lie is putting our democracy at risk. We’re fighting to protect it," Psaki added.