Biden describes Russia as eager to expand into Ukraine

President Biden on Tuesday described Russia’s aggression in eastern Ukraine as merely the start of what he believes will be a more drawn-out campaign by the Kremlin to seize additional territory.

Biden addressed the public from the White House a day after Russian President Vladimir Putin recognized two areas of Ukraine’s Donbas region as independent and sent Russian forces to the area. Russian-backed separatists have been fighting Ukrainian forces in the region for years.

“He’s setting up a rationale to take more territory by force, in my view. And if we listen to his speech last night … he’s setting up a rationale to go much further,” Biden said in prepared remarks. “This is the beginning of a Russian invasion of Ukraine, as he indicated and asked permission to be able to do from his Duma.”

The president cited an estimated 150,000 Russian troops surrounding Ukraine, including those stationed in Belarus that could attack Ukraine from the north, and described an array of military resources that Russia has at its disposal in the nearby Black Sea, including amphibious assault ships, submarines and missile cruisers.

Biden also noted that Russia had sent supplies of blood and medical equipment to the forces located near the Ukrainian borders, an ominous indicator of Moscow’s intentions.

“You don’t need blood unless you plan on starting a war,” he said.

While Biden closed his remarks by saying he was holding out hope for diplomacy, the bulk of his speech set the stage for the possibility of open conflict breaking out between Russia and Ukraine, with the president stressing that it was Moscow playing the role of aggressor. 

The president’s comments echoed warnings from lawmakers and experts who asserted Putin was unlikely to be satisfied by moving Russian troops into eastern Ukraine, even as the U.S. and allies unveiled an initial raft of sanctions punishing Moscow.

Putin on Monday delivered hourlong remarks in which he accused Western experts of rewriting history, questioned the independence of Ukraine, and portrayed the nation as historically and culturally Russian.

A short time later, after a meeting with his national security advisers that U.S. officials have described as “stagecraft,” Putin signed decrees recognizing as independent the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic. Russian troops moved into those areas late Monday, and Russian lawmakers on Tuesday paved the way for Putin to deploy forces outside of Russian in a move experts said could precede a larger invasion.

While White House officials were initially reluctant to describe Russian troop movement to those regions as an “invasion,” Biden was clear he viewed the deployments by Putin as a sign of things to come.

“We still believe that Russia is poised to go much further in launching a massive military attack against Ukraine,” Biden said. “Hope I’m wrong about that, hope we’re wrong about that, but Russia’s only escalated its threat against the rest of Ukrainian territory, including major cities and including the capital city of Kyiv.”

Biden announced an initial set of sanctions on the Russian military bank and the state development corporation VEB. He also said the administration would target Russia’s sovereign debt so it cannot trade on its debt in Western markets and an unspecified list of Russian elites would be subject to sanctions as well.

The president additionally announced more U.S. troops would move to NATO’s eastern flank to defend against potential Russian aggression, reinforcing protections for allies such as Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

But even Biden seemed aware such moves would not prompt Putin to reconsider his course as he vowed to ratchet up sanctions if the Kremlin increased its aggression.

“Whatever Russia does next, we’re ready to respond with unity, clarity and conviction,” Biden said.

Some more hawkish Republicans had urged Biden to act sooner as Russia in recent months amassed military forces and equipment along Ukraine’s borders. For those critics, Tuesday’s actions were too little, too late to meaningfully change the direction of Putin’s plans.

“We shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking that today’s incremental sanctions will deter Putin from trying to install a puppet government in Kyiv,” Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) said in a statement. “We need to get the Ukrainians more weapons. We should be doing gun runs around the clock to arm the Ukrainian people to the teeth. Our goal should be pretty simple: Help the Ukrainian resistance hold on for as long as possible. Make Putin regret his flagrant disregard for the rule of law.”

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) in a statement of his own warned that “every indication” was that Putin’s moves in the last 48 hours were a precursor to a larger invasion.

And Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who has been critical of Biden’s posture toward Ukraine in recent weeks, argued Tuesday that Putin was likely to make a play for areas under control of the Ukrainian government, including Kyiv, which is home to more than 40 million people.

“If Kyiv doesn’t give it up, Putin is going to say, well, this violates our mutual defense agreement and they’re going to go to war against Kyiv in a broader assault,” Rubio said on Fox News.

While Biden has carefully coordinated with U.S. allies on how to roll out sanctions with each new step of Russian aggression, experts remain skeptical that any particular measure will cause Putin to take the diplomatic off-ramp.

Biden officials have already indicated kicking Russia out of the SWIFT international banking system is off the table in initial sanctions, and the administration may be reluctant to hammer the Russian oil and gas sectors for fear of how it could affect global and domestic energy markets.

“I’m hesitant to think sanctions would be sufficient to either deter further Russian aggression in Ukraine or compel it to change course,” said Andrew Lohsen, a fellow in the Europe, Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic International Studies.

“For years, the Russian government has tried to sanctions-proof its economy,” Lohsen said. “Certainly they’ve proven quite adept at avoiding the worst outcomes of the sanctions that have been levied against it so far.”

Tags Ben Sasse Joe Biden Marco Rubio Mitch McConnell Russia-Ukraine conflict Russian invasion of Ukraine Vladimir Putin

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