President Biden on Thursday sought to clear up his remarks from a day earlier when he appeared to distinguish between a Russian invasion of Ukraine and a “minor incursion.”
“I’ve been absolutely clear with President Putin. He has no misunderstanding. If any assembled Russian units move across the Ukrainian border, that is an invasion,” Biden said at the outset of an event on infrastructure.
“Let there be no doubt at all that if Putin makes this choice, Russia will pay a heavy price,” Biden continued, noting there was also the potential for a cyberattack or para-military action by Russia that would require a coordinated response from the U.S. and its allies.
“The Ukrainian foreign minister said this morning that he’s confident of our support and resolve and he has a right to be,” Biden said before shifting to infrastructure.
The comments were Biden’s first since he held a press conference on Wednesday that prompted backlash and sent White House aides scrambling to clean up his comments about ongoing tensions between Ukraine and Russia.
“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 Wednesday, 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.
While the president later in the press conference sought to clarify he was suggesting any response would require unity among NATO allies, White House aides have spent the hours since Biden made the comments trying to tamp down concerns about whether Biden was giving Putin a green light for some sort of lesser action toward Ukraine.
“The president has conveyed directly to President Putin that if there is a movement of any military troops across the border, that is an invasion. If they go in, that is an invasion and there will be severe economic consequences,” press secretary Jen Psaki told Fox News on Thursday morning after issuing a statement on Wednesday night containing a similar message.
Emily Horne, a spokesperson for the National Security Council, issued a tweet on Wednesday emphasizing Biden was distinguishing between military and nonmilitary actions, such as cyberattacks that would be met with a reciprocal response.
Biden’s press conference 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.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on Thursday called Biden’s comments “bizarre.”
“President Biden needs to clean up his remarks he needs to clearly state American resolve and clearly demonstrate American leadership,” the senator said.
The White House has in recent downs issued increasingly urgent warnings that Russia could be preparing to go on the offensive and further invade Ukraine.