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Biden predicts Putin will ‘move in’ to Ukraine because ‘he has to do something’

In a news conference on Jan. 19, President Biden responded to questions about a possible Russian incursion into Ukraine. (Video: The Washington Post)

President Biden on Wednesday predicted Russia will once again invade Ukraine, speaking at a news conference in which he also made confusing remarks about how the United States and its allies would respond to Russian action short of a full-scale, multipronged offensive.

Biden told reporters he believes Russian President Vladimir Putin does not want a “full-blown war” but does want to test the United States and NATO — and probably will proceed with actions the Kremlin will come to regret because of their high cost.

“I’m not so sure he [is] certain what he’s going to do,” Biden said. “My guess is he will move in. He has to do something.”

Biden also suggested that a “minor incursion” by Russian forces, as opposed to a full-scale invasion, may not prompt the severe response Washington and its allies have threatened, creating confusion about how the United States would react to a Russian attack short of a devastating offensive and large-scale occupation.

“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,” Biden 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, et cetera, but if they actually do what they are capable of doing with the force they’ve massed on the border, it is going to be a disaster for Russia.”

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Biden noted, “our allies and partners are ready to impose severe costs and significant harm on Russia and the Russian economy.”

The remark about a “minor incursion” drew an incensed tweet Thursday from the Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky “We want to remind the great powers that there are no minor incursions and small nations,” he wrote. “Just as there are no minor casualties and little grief from the loss of loved ones. I say this as the President of a great power.”

Biden spoke as his top diplomat, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, visited Kyiv to offer U.S. support to the Ukrainian government in the event of a renewed war. More than 100,000 Russian forces have been massed near the Ukrainian border for weeks, according to U.S. officials, prompting fears that Russia, which annexed Crimea in 2014, will invade the country again this winter. Since that annexation, Russia has fueled a separatist conflict in the country’s east that has claimed about 14,000 lives, according to Ukrainian officials.

Later in the news conference, Biden was asked to clarify whether he meant a “minor incursion” into Ukraine would not lead to the severe sanctions he has threatened. He said the question is what would happen “if it’s something significantly short of a significant invasion, or not even significant.” He noted that if Russia were to continue cyberattacks against Ukraine, for example, the United States could respond in kind.

Biden said differences remain within NATO about how far countries are willing to go in responding to Russia, depending on what specific actions Moscow takes.

“If there’s something where there’s Russian forces crossing the border, killing Ukrainian fighters, et cetera, I think that changes everything,” Biden said. “But it depends on what he does, actually, what extent we’re going to be able to get total unity on the NATO front.”

The president appeared to be referring to a scenario that U.S. officials have been considering for weeks — how the United States should respond if Russia mounts a hybrid attack on Ukraine short of a full-on invasion. But his use of the term “minor incursion” generated confusion at a time when Washington and its allies are trying to send a clear and unified message to Moscow.

“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. “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.”

On ABC’s “Good Morning America Thursday, Vice President Harris said, “We will interpret any violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity by Russia and Vladimir Putin as an aggressive action and it will be met with costs, severe and certain.”

In a call with reporters after the news conference, a senior administration official said whether Russia acquires a small or large portion of Ukrainian territory, it is still an invasion, and that will “merit the severe economic response.” The official spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive matter.

In Kyiv, Blinken met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and promised continued American support, including the prospect of increased military hardware in the event of a new Russian invasion. Blinken is also due to meet Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Geneva on Friday after holding talks with other European leaders about how to defuse the crisis over Ukraine.

Blinken says U.S. will stand with Ukraine if Russia attacks

While massing forces on Ukraine’s border, Russia has demanded that NATO cease its eastward expansion and roll back its forces and infrastructure to 1997 boundaries. Russia has also demanded that the United States rule out placing offensive weapons in Ukraine. Putin has also complained about exercises near Russia’s borders that have crossed the Kremlin’s red lines.

In crisis talks last week, U.S. negotiators proposed discussing reciprocal limits on exercises and missile placements, but Russian officials balked at Washington’s refusal to negotiate on NATO’s expansion and activities, which comprise the Kremlin’s core demands. Biden said those crisis talks had not resulted in anything in part because it is unclear if Russian negotiators know what Putin really wants — or if Putin himself has made a decision.

Biden said the Russian leader has expressed two primary concerns to him during phone calls on the matter — the possible future placement of U.S. strategic weapons in Ukraine and possible future membership in NATO for Ukraine. The United States and Russia can come to an agreement on the first issue, Biden said, while also noting that Ukraine is unlikely to join NATO anytime soon.

“The likelihood that Ukraine is going to join NATO in the near term is not very likely based on much more work they have to do in terms of democracy and a few other things going on there, and whether or not the major allies in the West would vote to bring Ukraine in right now,” Biden said.

Biden also made it clear that he didn’t know what Putin ultimately would do.

“The only thing I am confident of is that decision is totally, solely, completely a Putin decision. Nobody else is going to make that decision,” Biden said. “No one else is going to impact that decision. He’s making that decision. And I suspect it matters which side of the bed he gets up on in the morning as to exactly what he is going to do.”

He warned that the cost of a full-scale invasion of Ukraine for Russia would be tremendously high, not only because the United States and its allies would impose devastating economic costs, but also because it would drag Russian forces into a quagmire.

“The cost of going into Ukraine in terms of physical loss of life — they will be able to prevail over time — but it’s going to be heavy, it’s going to be real, it’s going to be consequential,” Biden said.

He also suggested concerns about Russia cutting off Europe’s energy supply were overstated, noting that the money Russia earns from such sales contributes significantly to its economy.

“I don’t see that as a one-way street,” Biden said. “If they go ahead and cut it off . . . it’s like my mother used to say, you’re biting your nose off to spite your face.”

Missy Ryan in Kyiv and Ashley Parker and Ellen Nakashima in Washington contributed to this report.