US President Joe Biden said that he now expected President Vladimir Putin of Russia would order an invasion of Ukraine, delivering a grim assessment that the diplomacy and threat of sanctions issued by the United States and its European allies were unlikely to stop the Russian leader from sending troops across the border.
“Do I think he’ll test the West, test the United States and NATO, as significantly as he can? Yes, I think he will,” Biden told reporters during a nearly 2-hour-long news conference in the East Room of the White House. He added, almost with an air of fatalism: “But I think he will pay a serious and dear price for it that he doesn’t think now will cost him what it’s going to cost him. And I think he will regret having done it.”
Asked to clarify whether he was accepting that an invasion was coming, Biden said: “My guess is he will move in. He has to do something.”
The US president later acknowledged that Putin’s move might not amount to a full-scale invasion of the country.
Still, Biden’s comment went well beyond the current intelligence assessments described by White House officials, which conclude that Putin has not made a decision about whether to invade. The comment is also likely to provoke concern in Ukraine and among NATO allies, because Biden acknowledged that if Putin only conducted a partial invasion, NATO nations could be split on how strongly to react.
“It’s very important that we keep everyone in NATO on the same page,’’ Biden said. “That’s what I’m spending a lot of time doing. There are differences. There are differences in NATO as to what countries are willing to do, depending on what happened, the degree to which they’re able to go.”
Pentagon officials say that such an invasion, intended to split and destabilize Ukraine, would most likely extend Moscow’s control of eastern regions of the country, where a grinding war with Russian-backed separatists has been underway in the eight years since Russia annexed Crimea.
But the US president also seemed to contradict some of his own aides, who have said in the past week, in background briefings for reporters, that there would be no distinction between a small incursion into Russian-speaking territory in Ukraine and a full attack on the country. An invasion is an invasion is an invasion, one State Department official, speaking to reporters on condition of anonymity, said last week.
A half-hour after the president ended his news conference, Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, issued a clarification of his remarks, saying that Biden would treat any move over the border as an invasion — but was reserving judgment on how NATO would respond to other kinds of attacks.
When pressed, the president suggested there was no room to negotiate on Putin’s other demands: that all U.S. and NATO troops be pulled out of countries that once were part of the Soviet bloc, and that all U.S. nuclear weapons be removed from Europe. Both of those demands are included in a draft “treaty” that Putin’s government sent to the United States and NATO nations in December, demanding written answers — which so far have not been forthcoming.
“We’re going to actually increase troop presence in Poland and Romania, et cetera, if in fact he moves,” Biden said. “Because we have a sacred obligation” to defend those nations, both of which are NATO nations.
Putin had said that Russia has been increasingly surrounded by NATO forces, and that Ukraine’s shift toward the West was a major security threat to Moscow.
“If he invades, it hasn’t happened since World War II,’’ Biden said. “This will be the most consequential thing that’s happened in the world in terms of war and peace since World War II.”