Biden expects Russia to move on Ukraine, says Putin will pay ‘dear price’ if he invades country
US President Joe Biden has said he believes Russia is likely to invade Ukraine, and warned Russian President Vladimir Putin that the costs of invasion will be real and consequential, and spell “disaster” for the country.
If the Russian invasion does happen, it will be the most consequential event in terms of war and peace since the onset of the second World War.
In a press conference to mark his first year in office on Wednesday, Biden spoke about what he saw as Putin’s possible motivations, responded to his security proposals and where the US and Russia could agree and where they couldn’t, and outlined what may be the US response to any aggression. However, Biden’s comment which indicated that a “minor incursion” may not draw the same response sparked confusion, and prompted a subsequent White House clarification that the President was distinguishing between a military invasion and other forms of aggression.
Rejecting the allegation that the US withdrawal from Afghanistan reflected incompetence, Biden said there would never have been a good time to leave, and that he was unapologetic about the decision.
He said the US was spending a billion dollars a week in Afghanistan. “Raise your hand if you think anyone was going to be able to unify Afghanistan under one single government. It’s been the graveyard of empires for a solid reason: It is not susceptible to unity.” The question, Biden said, was whether he should have continued spending that money when the idea of succeeding was remote. “There was no way to get out of Afghanistan, after 20 years, easily. Not possible no matter when you did it. And I make no apologies for what I did.”
He said he did feel bad about what was happening “as a consequence of the incompetence of the Taliban”. “But I feel badly also about the fistulas that are taking place in the Eastern Congo. I feel badly about a whole range of things around the world — that we can’t solve every problem.”
Back to Russia, which was the key foreign policy focus of the questions he faced, Biden said that he had no doubt that the decision of whether to move into Ukraine was solely that of Putin – and it wasn’t clear if even other Russian interlocutors that US negotiators were speaking to knew what Putin would do. While saying that he did not think Putin wanted a “full-blown war”, Biden added: “Do I think he will test the West, the United States and NATO as significantly as he can? Yes, I think he will. But I think he will pay a serious and dear price for it.”
Speculating on Putin’s motivations, the US President said: “He is dealing with what he thinks is the most tragic thing that’s happened to Mother Russia – that the Berlin Wall came down, the Empire has been lost, the Near Abroad is gone, the Soviet Union has been split… and he is trying to find his place in the world between China and the West. And so, I am not so sure that he is certain what he is going to do. My guess is he will move in. He has to do something.”
Saying that he and Putin had no problems understanding each other, Biden said that the Russian President had wanted two assurances – that Ukraine won’t ever be a part of NATO, and that the West would not place strategic weapons on Ukrainian soil. Biden said they “could work out something” on the second issue. Offering a way out on the first, while reiterating the principle that countries could choose who they wanted to be with, the US President said that the chances that Ukraine would join NATO in the near-term was “not very likely”. “So there is room to work if he wants to do that.”
Biden, however, rejected other Russian security proposals with regard to withdrawal of Western military presence in the older Soviet bloc, and said: “We are actually going to increase troop presence in Poland, in Romania, if he moves because we have a sacred obligation in Article 5 to defend those countries.”
But Biden’s thrust was on how, even if it prevailed, Russia would pay a very high price if it did move in to Ukraine. “The cost of going into Ukraine, in terms of physical loss of life, for the Russians, they’ll — they’ll be able to prevail over time, but it’s going to be heavy, it’s going to be real, and it’s going to be consequential.” He said that the US had already shipped $600 million worth of sophisticated equipment to Ukraine, and warned that any invasion would result in NATO fortifying its eastern flank. He referred to how other countries in Europe – naming Finland and Sweden in particular – may change their status (by joining NATO).
Biden added that while many spoke of how Europe depended on Russia for energy supplies, the fact was that 45% of Russia’s economy depended on money they earned from it. “I don’t see that as a one-way street. They go ahead and cut it off — it’s like my mother used to say: ‘You bite your nose off to spite your face’.” And he emphasised the other economic consequences that would come into play. “Anything that involves dollar denominations… their banks will not be able to deal in dollars.”
But while speaking about consequences, Biden, early on during the press conference, 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.” Even as he was speaking, this triggered criticism from both Republicans and foreign policy analysts for weakening the US ability to deter Russia. In a statement, White House press secretary Jen Psaki subsequently clarified that any Russian forces moving across the Ukranian border would be seen as a “renewed invasion” and will be met with a “swift, severe, and united response”. “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.” These actions would be met with “decisive, reciprocal, and united” response.
Denouncing Biden’s remarks on the Ukraine issue, the Kremlin on Thursday said that such a statement destabilised an already tense situation.
Statements like that, said Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, “can facilitate the destabilisation of the situation because they can inspire some hotheads in Ukraine with false hopes.”
At the same time, Peskov did not rule out new security talks between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Biden.
This comes at a time when the US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, is set to meet Russia’s foreign minister Sergei Lavrov for a new round of security talks in Geneva on Friday.