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Biden insists U.S. won’t accept a ‘minor incursion’ by Russia into Ukraine after remarks drew criticism

President Biden holds a news conference in the East Room of the White House on Jan. 19. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)

President Biden insisted Thursday that the United States would not accept even a “minor incursion” of Ukraine by Russia, as the White House continued efforts to clarify Biden’s remarks Wednesday suggesting that it might.

“I’ve been absolutely clear with President [Vladimir] Putin. He has no misunderstanding: Any, any assembled Russian units move across the Ukrainian border, that is an invasion,” Biden told reporters Thursday at the start of a White House event on infrastructure.

Such an invasion would be met with a “severe and coordinated economic response,” Biden added, noting that those consequences have been “laid out very clearly for President Putin.”

“Let there be no doubt at all: If Putin makes this choice, Russia will pay a heavy price,” Biden said.

In the second news conference of his presidency Wednesday, Biden said he expected Russia to take some sort of action to “move in” and invade Ukraine and that the U.S. response “depends on what it does.”

“It’s one thing if it’s a minor incursion and then we end up having a fight about what to do and not do, et cetera,” Biden said. “But if they actually do what they’re capable of doing with the force they’ve massed on the border, it is going to be a disaster for Russia if they further invade Ukraine.”

Biden was swiftly criticized for appearing to give a green light to Russia to attack Ukraine as long as it didn’t amount to a full-scale invasion. Soon after, the White House issued a statement seeking to clarify Biden’s comments, saying that if Russia sends its forces across the border, it will be met with “a swift, severe, and united response from the United States and our allies.”

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky pushed back against Biden’s remarks Thursday morning without naming him.

“We want to remind the great powers that there are no minor incursions and small nations. 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,” Zelensky said in a tweet.

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

GOP lawmakers slammed Biden on Thursday for what they called a message of weakness regarding the escalating situation in Russia and Ukraine.

“Words matter when you’re in this type of crisis, and words matter when you’re standing at the presidential podium,” Rep. Michael Waltz (R-Fla.) said. “Now, [Biden] may have used his team to try to spin and backtrack afterwards, but Putin got the message, the Kremlin got the message, the Ukrainian people got the message.”

A bipartisan delegation of senators traveled to Ukraine over the weekend to reassure leaders in Kyiv that the United States stood with them, amid a Russian troop buildup on the border with Ukraine. Those senators spoke with Biden on Wednesday morning to brief him on their trip.

In a phone call with Biden in December — their second in a month — Putin warned that any new sanctions on Moscow could result in “a complete rupture of relations” between their countries. Putin has demanded that the United States and NATO agree to sweeping security guarantees that would bar Ukraine from joining NATO and rule out any eastward expansion by the U.S.-led military alliance.

Earlier this month, U.S. and Russian delegations met for talks in Europe but hit an impasse, as Russia continued to deny plans to invade Ukraine. White House officials have repeatedly emphasized that there will be “massive consequences” for Russia if it renews its aggression against Ukraine.

Vice President Harris, who made three television appearances Thursday morning and who also sought to clarify Biden’s remarks, said on “Good Morning America” that she is briefed every morning with Biden on threats to national security and other matters, and is often in the Situation Room with the president for discussions about Russia and Ukraine.

“What I can tell you is that the president has been very clear that if Russia takes aggressive action, it will be met with serious, severe and a unified response and consequences,” Harris said. “And that position that we have taken is grounded in a number of values that we hold dear, including the importance of respecting the sovereignty and territorial integrity in this case of Ukraine. We have not wavered from that perspective.”

Mariana Alfaro and Felicia Sonmez contributed to this report.