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Biden’s Ukraine comments prompt uproar at home and abroad

A convoy of Russian armored vehicles moves along a highway in Crimea this week. Russia has concentrated an estimated 100,000 troops near Ukraine with tanks and other heavy weapons.
A convoy of Russian armored vehicles moves along a highway in Crimea this week. Russia has concentrated an estimated 100,000 troops near Ukraine with tanks and other heavy weapons. (AP)
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President Biden faced a furor Thursday — including a highly unusual rebuke from Ukraine’s president and sharp criticism from Republican members of Congress — after appearing to downplay a hypothetical “minor incursion” by Russia into its neighbor’s territory.

The administration was hastily thrown into cleanup mode, reassuring allies and foes that the U.S. would view any crossing by Russian troops into Ukraine as unacceptable aggression. Administration officials said Biden’s comments amounted to clumsy language unrepresentative of his position, which they said is amply clear from his oft-stated commitment to Ukraine’s sovereignty.

In a lengthy, freewheeling news conference Wednesday, Biden, answering several questions on the Ukraine crisis, managed to spook Ukrainian leaders, undercut a united front sought by NATO and suggest that if Moscow’s incursion into Ukraine were “minor,” the reaction by U.S. allies might be less severe. Still, by day’s end, the administration appeared to have largely calmed the diplomatic waters.

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

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky addressed the tempest with a tweet on Thursday morning, rejecting the notion that there was such a thing as a “minor incursion” when it comes to the invasion of one country by another.

“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,” Zelensky wrote. “I say this as the President of a great power.”

Members of Congress were also critical. “The president’s press conference was an absolute train wreck that will have serious consequences,” Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) said in a statement Wednesday. “President Biden basically gave Putin a green light to invade Ukraine by yammering about the supposed insignificance of a ‘minor incursion.’ He projected weakness, not strength.”

The White House clearly recognized that Biden’s comments were problematic. The National Security Council quickly issued a statement Wednesday night, as did White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki, saying any Russian move across the Ukraine border would be “met with a swift, severe, and united response.”

The damage control picked up speed on Thursday with live comments from Vice President Harris in morning television interviews and from Biden himself later in the day.

Administration officials said no extra back-channeling was needed with European allies to reassure them of Biden’s views on Russian aggression, and Psaki said Biden had not spoken with Zelensky since the news conference.

Other American officials did speak to their counterparts in Kyiv, she said. “We have been in touch at a high level with Ukrainian officials and leaders,” Psaki said. “They certainly understand from those conversations what the president meant.”

One senior administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to describe private conversations, said European allies and partners reached out to thank Washington for quickly clarifying Biden’s comments.

Psaki also cited Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s trips to Kyiv and Berlin this week as further evidence of the administration’s commitment to doing all it can to protect Ukraine’s sovereignty.

“We cannot choose the path for Moscow,” Blinken told reporters Thursday in Berlin. “But we can make crystal clear the stark consequences of that choice.” Blinken spoke after a meeting of the so-called Transatlantic Quad, comprising the United States, Germany, Britain and France.

But after Biden’s Wednesday remarks, those consequences seemed less than crystal clear to some. “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 a fight about what to do and not do, et cetera.”

Still, the Biden administration has consistently vowed to impose far-reaching sanctions, including steps to cut Russia off from the global financial system, if President Vladimir Putin orders a move into Ukraine.

The president said Wednesday he believed Putin would invade. “I’m not so sure that he is certain what he’s going to do,” Biden said at the news conference. “My guess is he will move in. He has to do something.”

In the run-up to the 2008 presidential election, Biden became known on the national stage for public gaffes, including when he described his future boss, Barack Obama, as “the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean” to run for president.

Over his time as vice president, Biden’s tendency to put his foot in his mouth was often dismissed as an endearing characteristic, part of a broader image he cultivated of the nation’s sometimes impolitic but always authentic Uncle Joe.

But his Ukraine comments demonstrated the far higher stakes when a commander in chief uses unclear language during a global crisis. The weight of a president’s words is a point Biden himself regularly made in criticizing Trump’s often intemperate rhetoric.

“The words of a president matter,” Biden said. “They can move markets. They can send our brave men and women to war. They can bring peace.”

U.S. officials are alarmed about the possibility of a large-scale invasion by Russian forces on Ukrainian territory that would bring mass casualties and escalate a simmering conflict in Europe. U.S. intelligence has assessed that Russia is making plans for such an invasion, even if it isn’t certain that Putin ultimately will proceed.

Biden’s comments prompted his staff to come out and clarify immediately that any movement of Russian forces into Ukrainian territory — regardless of the size of the land occupied — would count as an invasion and prompt the severe sanctions and economic penalties the United States has been preparing with allies. Biden later endeavored Thursday to make that clear himself.

“I’ve been absolutely clear with President 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 meeting on infrastructure.

An invasion would be met with a “severe and coordinated economic response” that has been “laid out very clearly for President Putin,” he said.

By then, Biden’s remarks had already unnerved European and Ukrainian officials. Apart from his comments about the “minor incursion,” Biden also made other remarks that went against the grain of U.S. messaging on the crisis.

For weeks, top U.S. officials have been emphasizing that Washington is fully united with its European allies about how to respond to the Russian threat. But Biden said that was not entirely the case in all circumstances, suggesting that Russian action short of an invasion could cause a divide among allies about how forcefully to respond.

Many officials conceded Biden was probably accurately portraying real divisions that could emerge within NATO regarding how the alliance would respond to some Russian tactics. But U.S. and European leaders have been at pains to emphasize their unity, not their differences.

Biden said there are “differences in NATO as to what countries are willing to do, depending on what happens, the degree to which we have to go.” The comment reflected the way Putin, who has long taken aggressive actions abroad short of war, may be able to exploit disagreements within the alliance.

And instead of coming out and offering a robust defense of NATO’s “open door” policy, which gives any nation the opportunity to join the military alliance, Biden underscored that Ukraine was not likely to enter the organization anytime soon. That’s because NATO members must meet certain criteria for democracy and stability.

“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,” the president said.

Although Biden’s awkward reference to a “minor incursion” — he later suggested he was referring to an action such as a cyberattack — unsettled officials from Washington to Brussels, the White House’s aggressive effort to restate the U.S. position appeared to reassure many allies.

“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 Thursday morning on ABC News. “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.”

The gaffe also had a different character than Trump’s many deliberate comments essentially taking Russia’s side in its aggression toward Ukraine. The former president signaled that he had little interest in backing Kyiv’s aspirations to further develop democracy in the country or deepen cooperation with the West.

Trump told aides in the Oval Office, for example, that Ukrainians were “horrible, corrupt people” who had tried to take him down during his 2016 campaign, and suggested he agreed with the common view among Kremlin hard-liners that Ukraine was not a real country.

On the campaign trail and afterward, Trump said the United States would consider recognizing Crimea as part of Russia, even though Moscow had seized that territory from Ukraine in a military invasion widely condemned in the West. Trump declined to rule out recognizing Russia’s annexation of Crimea and reportedly told leaders at a Group of Seven summit that the peninsula was Russian because the people there speak Russian.

Despite his muddled comments Wednesday, few doubt Biden's commitment to Ukraine. As Moscow bulks up its military presence along the Ukrainian border, diplomatic talks between U.S. and Russian delegations have hit an impasse, as Russia continued to deny plans to invade Ukraine and continues to make demands such as the permanent exclusion of Ukraine from NATO.

On Monday, a bipartisan group of senators met with Ukrainian leaders in Kyiv to assure them the United States remained steadfast in its support of Ukraine‘s territorial integrity and independence.

For Biden, even if the quick cleanup efforts reassured allies for now, a burgeoning security crisis nonetheless remains on the horizon.

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

paul.sonne@washpost.com

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