US president alarms government in Kyiv by saying Nato was divided on how to respond to ‘minor incursion’
in Kyiv, in Moscow and in Washington
Joe Biden has said he thinks Russia will attack Ukraine, warning that Moscow would face a “stiff price”, but he admitted Nato was divided on how to respond if there is only a “minor incursion”.
The White House was forced to issue a hasty clarification to that last point, saying that any movement of Russian forces over the border would be treated as invasion.
But Biden, in his most extensive remarks on the Ukraine crisis to date, given at an extended press conference on Wednesday, alarmed the government in Kyiv and strayed from the show of determined unity that Nato has sought to project.
Asked about Vladimir Putin’s intentions, the US president said: “I’m not so sure he is certain what he’s going to do. My guess is he will move in. He has to do something.”
Biden said a full-scale invasion would be “the most consequential thing that’s happened in the world in terms of war and peace since World War Two”, with the risk of spilling outside Ukraine’s borders, and “could get out of hand”.
He said that Russia would prevail militarily in an invasion but would suffer heavy casualties.
“This is not all just a cakewalk for Russia militarily,” he said, noting the military aid the US has provided recently. “They’ll pay a stiff price, immediately, short-term, medium-term and long-term if they do it.”
Nato has said it would move troops to its eastern flank in the event of an attack, and the US has been discussing a range of sanctions with its European allies.
However, the president, in reflecting on the possible scenarios, revealed behind-the-scenes divisions among the Nato allies on how severe the response would be.
“What you’re going to see is that Russia will be held accountable if it invades and it depends on what it does,” he said. “It’s one thing if it’s a minor incursion, and then we end up having to fight about what to do and not do etc.”
Asked to clarify what qualified as a minor incursion, he pointed to cyberattacks and the presence of Russian intelligence officers, who Washington has said are already in Ukraine. He suggested a major movement of troops into Ukrainian territory would be a red line.
“There are differences in Nato as to what countries are willing to do, depending on what happens,” Biden said. “If there’s Russian forces crossing the border … I think that changes everything.”
There was an immediate dismayed reaction from Kyiv on Biden’s choice of words, and his suggestion that a “minor incursion” would divide Nato and draw an uncertain response. One Ukrainian official told CNN it “gives the green light to Putin to enter Ukraine at his pleasure”.
A few minutes after Biden finished speaking, his spokeswoman, Jen Psaki, issued a clarification.
“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,” Psaki said in a written statement.
“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.”
Earlier in the day the US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, said Russia could take “further aggressive action” against Ukraine “at any moment”, adding that Putin’s military intentions were still unclear as he prepared for talks with his Russian counterpart at the end of the week.
Speaking after meeting Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, in Kyiv, Blinken said Russia had amassed “very significant forces” on Ukraine’s borders, including in Belarus where major exercises are due to begin next month. It could double them in “relatively short order”, he said.
Before talks on Friday in Geneva with Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, Blinken said he was relentlessly pursuing a peaceful solution to the crisis. But there seem few signs that Moscow and Washington can reach diplomatic agreement in Switzerland.
The Kremlin wants Nato forces to withdraw from eastern Europe and to return to 1997 levels of deployment. Russia’s deputy foreign minister, Sergei Rybakov, said on Wednesday that Moscow would be satisfied with a unilateral US commitment to vote against Nato membership for Ukraine.
Blinken said he did not have a “piece of paper” by way of answer to Russia’s latest security demands, but he appeared to rule out a veto promise over Ukraine’s future, saying closing Nato’s doors to new members was an “absolute non-starter”.
Asked what Russia might do next, Blinken said: “I can’t read Vladimir Putin’s mind.”
But he pointed out that Russia’s president had a long history of aggressive behaviour. This included attacking Georgia in 2008 and annexing Crimea in 2014, and “training, arming and leading” a separatist rebellion in eastern Ukraine. Blinken added: “We have to base our actions on the facts.”
After Kyiv, Blinken is due to travel to Berlin for talks with German and European allies. Ukraine’s foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, said relations with the US were advancing at “Formula One speed”.
He acknowledged Russia was refusing to negotiate with his government directly, saying: “Mr Lavrov is avoiding me.”
Russia has brushed off calls to withdraw its troops from the Ukrainian border by saying it has a right to deploy its forces wherever it likes on its own territory.
It also has rejected US allegations that it is preparing a pretext to invade Ukraine. Lavrov dismissed the US claim of a Russian “false-flag operation” as “total disinformation”.
Speaking at a meeting of the Valdai discussion club, Ryabkov repeated Moscow’s denials it had plans to attack Ukraine.
“I am confident that there is no risk of a large-scale war that could break out in Europe or somewhere else. We do not intend to take any aggressive steps,” he said. “We have no intention of attacking, staging an offensive on or invading Ukraine.”
Ryabkov said Moscow would not consider an informal moratorium on Ukraine’s entrance into Nato sufficient.
“If the US assumes a unilateral legally binding commitment that it will never vote in favour of admitting Ukraine and other countries to Nato, we will be ready to consider this option. It would be an easier path for the US,” he added.
Meanwhile, Russia continued its deployment of military assets from its far east to the borders of Ukraine. Open source researchers said on Wednesday they had identified elements of a BM-27 Uragan rocket artillery launcher in Belarus about 200km (125 miles) from Kyiv.
The deployment of heavy rocket artillery so close to the Ukrainian capital could further increase fears that the plans for joint exercises could provide cover for a Russian-led advance that could quickly engulf Kyiv and its government.
On Wednesday Russia’s defence ministry released fresh details of the joint exercises, which are set to begin next month and continue until 20 February.
Russia was planning to deploy 12 Sukhoi Su-35 air defence fighters to Belarus for the exercises, along with S-400 and Pantsir anti-air defence systems, the ministry said in a statement.
The Biden administration has promised to boost military assistance to Ukraine in the event of a Russian operation, but has ruled out sending troops. On Wednesday Blinken said military support was continuing, with deliveries last year at their highest level since 2014.
The US has also been supplying Ukraine with classified intelligence. The CIA director, William Burns, visited Kyiv last week and shared its risk assessment with Zelenskiy’s cabinet, a US official said.