Biden suggests NATO disunity, lighter sanctions on Russia if it makes only a ‘minor incursion’ into Ukraine
U.S. President Joe Biden’s comment that that Russia may not face harsh sanctions if it restrains itself to only a “minor incursion” into Ukrainian territory, made during a Jan. 19 press conference dedicated to his first year in office, raised eyebrows and set the White House rushing to “clarify” the president’s meaning.
During the press conference, Biden spent a significant amount of time answering journalists’ questions about the “imminent” threat of Russian invasion into Ukraine.
One journalist asked a follow-up on what Russia would face in case of a “minor incursion” into Ukraine. Biden repeated his earlier sentiment that minor actions would not be answered with overly harsh sanctions.
“Are you effectively giving Putin permission to make a small incursion into the country?” the journalist asked.
“That’s how it did sound like, didn’t it?” Biden replied.
The president went on: “So, the question is: 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.”
Keeping all NATO members on the same page was the goal, Biden said.
“And that’s what I’m spending a lot of time doing. And there are differences. There are differences in NATO as to what countries are willing to do depending on what happens — the degree to which they’re able to go.”
Nevertheless, Biden said he was sure that NATO would present a united front if the Kremlin launched a major attack.
“The idea that NATO is not going to be united (in that case), I don’t buy,” said Biden.
“I’ve spoken to every major NATO leader. We’ve had the NATO-Russian summit. And so, I think what you’re going to see is that Russia will be held accountable if it invades.”
However, he then said NATO is currently divided on the issue of sanctions on Russia, as proposed bans on U.S. dollar transactions in Russia, a block on the Nord Stream-2 pipeline, and other strong measures against Russian aggression will hurt the U.S. and European economies, and divide the allies even more.
Following the Biden press conference, White House press secretary Jen Psaki quickly issued a clarification of the president’s comments.
"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," Psaki said.
Earlier on the same day as Biden’s press conference, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrived on a short-notice visit in Ukraine.
In Ukraine, Blinken’s comments contrasted with those of Biden.
“Now more than ever, it is up to Ukrainians to decide on their future, and on the future of this country,” Blinken said, adding that the deployment of more than 100,000 Russian troops on the Ukrainian border is “an unprecedented threat.”
“We clearly stated our preference for a diplomatic solution to the conflict, (one) that would lead to a de-escalation of tensions… We told Moscow that should they choose further aggression against Ukraine, it will have serious consequences, not only on our part but also on the part of the EU and other countries,” the secretary said.
Earlier, a bipartisan group of U.S. senators, who arrived in Ukraine on Jan.17, claimed sanctions might be imposed even before the Russian invasion, and promised that the United States will hold Russian President Vladimir Putin personally accountable for any kind of expanded Russian military action in Ukraine.
Blinken confirmed that such an action is highly possible.
Later, in Washington, Biden claimed that “Putin has not made up his mind yet” on whether to start a full-scale war.
“The answer is that I think he still does not want any full-blown war,” the president said. “But he’ll test the West, test the United States and NATO as significantly as he can. But I think he’ll pay a serious and dear price. And I think he will regret having done it.”
Russia and Ukraine have already been in conflict since Russia illegally annexed and occupied Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014, and has been fueling a hybrid war against Ukraine that has already killed more than 14,000 people. Russian companies have also learned how to bypass current anti-Russian sanctions, imposed on the country for its aggressive actions in Ukraine.
While Ukraine’s allies and partners have been demonstrating their support and readiness to deter Putin, this support has, with some exceptions, been limited to diplomatic de-escalation negotiations. Meanwhile, the Kremlin has said the clock is ticking for the United States and NATO to provide it with written answers to Russian demands that NATO cease expansion and ban Ukraine and Georgia from entering the alliance in the future. The Kremlin has also demanded a roll-back of NATO military infrastructure to pre-1997 levels.
Biden confirmed the Russian request for a written guarantee that Ukraine would never join NATO, and while the alliance has insisted that its “open door” policy is inviolable, the U.S. president noted that the likelihood of Ukraine joining NATO in the near-term is low.
“They have to do much more work in terms of democracy and a few other things going on there,” Biden said.
However, if the Russians do what they are capable of doing with the forces amassed on the Russian-Ukrainian border, it is going to be a disaster for Russia if they further invade Ukraine, Biden said, adding that U.S. allies and partners are ready to impose severe costs and significant harm on Russia and the Russian economy in that case, as well as providing even more weapons to Ukraine.
The United States has already shipped over $600 million worth of sophisticated equipment, defensive equipment to the Ukrainians, the U.S. president noted.
“The cost of going into Ukraine, in terms of physical loss of life, for the Russians, they’ll — they’ll be able to prevail over time, but it’s going to be heavy, it’s going to be real, and it’s going to be consequential,” Biden said.
“In addition to that, Putin has — you know, has a stark choice: He — either de-escalation or diplomacy; confrontation or the consequences.”
Those consequences, according to the president, include bans on Russian dollar-denominated banking transactions, which would impose severe economic damage onto Russia.
“Militarily, they have overwhelming superiority, and on — as it relates to Ukraine. But they’ll pay a stiff price — immediately, near term, medium-term, and long term — if they do it,” Biden said.
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