During Joe Biden’s lengthy press conference today, the subject of a possible Russian military action against Ukraine came up. Asked what his response to such an action would be, Biden said Russia would be “held accountable,” a meaningless phrase.
He added that our response will depend on the scope of a Russian invasion:
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. It’s one thing if it’s a minor incursion and we end up having to fight about what to do and not to do. But if they actually do what they’re capable of doing with the forces amassed on the border, it is going to be a disaster for Russia if they further invade Ukraine.
“Fight about what to do” with whom? Our NATO allies.
As Biden later explained:
The serious imposition of sanctions relative to dollar transactions and other things are things that are going to have a negative impact on the United States and a negative impact on the economies of Europe as well. So I’ve got to make sure everybody’s on the same page as we move along.
It’s very important that we keep everyone in NATO on the same page. That’s what I’m spending a lot of time doing, and there are differences. There are differences in NATO as to what countries are willing to do, depending on what happens.
But earlier, when the subject of Ukraine first came up, Biden said NATO is united on how to respond to a Russian military action against its neighbor.
The initial response basically tells Russia that if it limits its invasion, it won’t face severe consequences. The follow-up tells Russia that NATO isn’t united on how to respond to Russian aggression against Ukraine.
Presidents shouldn’t be telling our adversaries that limited aggression against our allies is basically okay. Nor should they be conceding the weakness of our major alliance.
One potential defense of what Biden said might be that Russia already knows NATO is divided on the matter of Ukraine and already understands that our response to a limited incursion wouldn’t be severe. Maybe Biden sees a limited incursion as the best case scenario that’s realistic at this point, and was encouraging Russia to limit itself to such an action.
But I don’t think that defense works. Otherwise, why did the White House feel the need to clean up after Biden?
Jen Psaki handled that thankless task. She said:
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.
But Psaki had to say this precisely because Biden wasn’t clear — or, to be more accurate, was pretty clear that our response to a limited move of Russian forces would be limited.
That’s certainly how Ukraine viewed Biden’s statement. CNN reports:
One [Ukraine official] told CNN’s Matthew Chance he was “shocked that the US President Biden would distinguish between incursion and invasion” and suggest that a minor incursion would not trigger sanctions. “This gives the green light to Putin to enter Ukraine at his pleasure,” the official added, claiming he’d never heard any nuance like this from the US administration before.
“Kyiv is stunned,” he said, referring to the Ukrainian government.
Presumably, Moscow heard what Kyiv did.
Perhaps I should also note that when Biden said Russia “will be held accountable,” he was looking down, obviously reading. When he added the part about “a minor incursion,” he had looked up. Thus, Biden may well have gone off-script, as Psaki’s cleanup attempt suggests he did. So too, when Biden, after earlier talking up NATO unity, later talked it down.
Vladimir Putin must be pleased to know what Biden really thinks.