Biden sparks confusion, cleanup on Russia-Ukraine remarks

President Biden on Wednesday sparked confusion and intense criticism over suggestions that Russia would face lesser consequences for launching a “minor” attack against Ukraine, prompting the White House to quickly try to clean up the remarks. 

“It depends on what he does as to what extent we’re going to be able to get total unity on the NATO front,” the president said during a press conference at the White House, referring to the allies of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. 

“I think what you’re going to see is that Russia will be held accountable if it invades, and it depends on what it does. It’s one thing if it’s a minor incursion and we end up having to fight about what to do and not to do,” Biden said.

The White House quickly sought to clarify Biden’s position and tamp down concerns among allies and Ukrainian officials amid warnings Russia could take action imminently.

“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,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said in a statement right after the press conference’s conclusion.

“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,” Psaki added.

Psaki’s statement came shortly after Emily Horne, a spokesperson for the National Security Council, issued a tweet emphasizing Biden was distinguishing between military and nonmilitary actions, such as cyberattacks that would be met with a reciprocal response.

Biden himself had attempted to clean up his remarks when given the chance during his nearly two hour press conference when a reporter followed up to ask if he meant to effectively give Putin a green light to take offensive action by saying a “minor incursion” may not be as big of a deal.

“The serious imposition of sanctions relative to dollar transactions and other things are things that are going to have a negative impact on the United States and a negative impact on the economies of Europe as well,” Biden said. “So I’ve got to make sure everybody’s on the same page as we move along.” 

He further explained that if Putin stops short of a full-scale military invasion and, for example, launched a cyberattack, the response could be a retaliatory cyberattack from the U.S. and its allies.

Still, the remarks prompted confusion and criticism among experts and pushback from Republicans. The confusion came at an inopportune time for the Biden administration, with Secretary of State Antony Blinken preparing to meet with his Russian counterpart in Geneva later this week.

“I am very concerned by the weak, incoherent message we just heard from [President Biden] on Ukraine,” tweeted Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), the ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

“This administration must be clear that ANY Putin move into Ukraine is unacceptable, and we should do more to impose costs on him.”

Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), the ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said the president’s rhetoric “will make Putin believe he can get away with more aggression and embolden our adversaries like the [Chinese Communist Party] to follow suit.”  

“Don’t understand logic of @POTUS suggesting he believes Russians will move into Ukraine & that if they do it in a relatively  small way there would be less of a price to pay,” tweeted Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations. “That may well be true, but both statements weaken deterrence & weaken prospects for a diplomatic outcome.”

Nikki Haley, considered a potential 2024 Republican presidential candidate and a former United Nations ambassador for the Trump administration, called Biden’s remarks about Ukraine a “trainwreck.” 

“Imagine being Vladimir Putin and contemplating invading Ukraine. Then you see this train wreck of a press conference broadcasting Biden’s weak leadership. Biden is emboldening Putin. This is so embarrassing,” she tweeted. 

CNN reported shortly after Biden’s presser had concluded that a Ukrainian official was “shocked” by Biden’s comments appearing to distinguish between an invasion and a minor incursion.

Russia was a frequent topic of questions during Biden’s marathon press conference, and the administration has given increasingly dire warnings in recent days that Moscow is prepared to further invade Ukraine imminently.

Biden at one point predicted that Putin would invade Ukraine, but later said his administration had not made a judgment one way or another on whether Putin had made up his mind.

The president’s remarks are likely to further fuel concerns among Ukrainian officials about whether the U.S. and its allies will respond with sufficient force should Russia go on the offensive. 

The remarks also appeared to sow doubt on the unity of allies despite more than a week of intensive face-to-face diplomacy by top diplomats. The U.S. held three meetings in Europe with allies and partners, including with NATO to enforce unity against Russian aggression.

Blinken traveled to Ukraine and met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Wednesday in a show of unity with Kyiv, while also announcing the U.S. delivery of $200 million in defensive military assistance. 

The secretary is meeting in Berlin with German, British and French officials, the so-called transatlantic quad, ahead of a high stakes diplomatic meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Geneva on Friday.

Morgan Chalfant contributed.

Tags Antony Blinken Jen Psaki Jim Inhofe Joe Biden Michael McCaul Nikki Haley Vladimir Putin

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