It’s deja vu all over again. Remember this Biden bon mot from his press conference last month?

Critics tore into him afterward for seeming to give Russia a green light to conquer Ukrainian territory so long as their conquest could plausibly be described as “minor.” Jen Psaki and the White House comms team scrambled to undo Biden’s gaffe the following day, clarifying that any Russian incursion into Ukraine would amount to an invasion.

As Ed noted earlier, we ended up back at square one last night after Putin ordered Russia’s military to enter eastern Ukraine, where separatists supported by Russia already control territory. Is it an “invasion” if Russian troops do nothing more than officially occupy land that’s already unofficially occupied by Russia? Maybe not, the White House told reporters:

“Russia has occupied these regions since 2014,” said the official, a point he emphasized several times throughout the call. “It has been Russia’s position that there are not Russian forces present in this part of the Donbas. The reality, as we pointed out on a number of occasions over these past years, has been quite different. There have been Russian forces present in these areas throughout.”

After the call, a different administration official defined a Russian invasion that would prompt a clear U.S. response as crossing into Ukrainian territory that Russia has “not occupied since 2014.”

Russian proxies have occupied *parts* of Luhansk and Donetsk since 2014. If the U.S. and NATO are unwilling to impose severe sanctions for the Russian military’s occupation of those parts, they’re effectively ceding them to Russia — and maybe not just the parts where separatists are currently stationed. There are three potential outcomes here: Russia goes no further than the territory its allies already control; Russia pushes forward and takes all of eastern Ukraine, including the parts held by the Ukrainian government; Russia pushes forward to Kiev and smashes the whole country.

You can understand why the White House would resort to word games about an “invasion” in those circumstances. As cowardly and appeasement-minded as it appears, there’s a cold logic to it in trying to incentivize Putin to do the least amount of damage in Ukraine. Biden is signaling that if Russia “only” occupies the territory that was already under its control, giving Putin a face-saving quasi-victory, the U.S. won’t bring down the hammer by sanctioning Russian banks and Putin’s oligarchical cronies. In other words, so long as there’s no bloodshed, Putin gets off with a wrist slap in the form of minor sanctions while he boasts that parts of eastern Ukraine are now Russian again.

And let’s face it. For selfish yet understandable political reasons, Biden doesn’t want to have to implement mega-sanctions. The more economic warfare there is between east and west, the more expensive life will get for Americans — especially with respect to energy. And soaring energy prices is a major, major liability for the governing party before the midterms, particularly at a moment when the country’s already struggling with inflation.

So, as Ed said, the White House is offering Putin one last off-ramp. Don’t push into territory that Ukraine actually controls and maybe the two sides can still de-escalate.

But how likely is that given Putin’s insane speech yesterday afternoon?

The point of his address to the nation wasn’t that Luhansk and Donetsk rightfully belong to Russia, it was that Ukraine isn’t a proper country — or, at a minimum, that Ukraine’s national government isn’t legitimate. His foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, reiterated the point today:

Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Tuesday questioned whether Ukraine had a right to sovereignty because he said the government in Kyiv did not represent the country’s constituent parts, the Interfax news agency reported…

“I don’t think anyone can claim that the Ukrainian regime, since the 2014 coup d’état, represents all the people living on the territory of the Ukrainian state,” Lavrov was quoted as saying.

That’s not how you talk if you’re planning to do nothing more than squat on foreign land you already control. And “securing” Luhansk and Donetsk wouldn’t require massing 180,000 troops at the border.

Which may explain why the White House has now altered its rhetoric and is calling Russia’s “peacekeeping” operation in eastern Ukraine an invasion after all:

That doesn’t necessarily mean that mega-sanctions will be imposed but it makes it harder for the White House to decline to do so. How do you justify pulling your economic punches with Putin now that you’ve accused him of invading Ukraine, the very thing that was supposed to trigger those sanctions?

We’ll see how far Biden is willing to go. Reportedly one idea that had been kicked around, banning Russia from the SWIFT financial system, is no longer on the table. What experts want to see is western powers — especially the UK — going after individual Russian oligarchs who have stashed enormous sums in western properties:

Russia’s mega-rich are one of the few entities in the country that might have some influence over Putin. “Despite all of our talk, no one has ever seriously tried to end, rather than simply limit, Russian money laundering in the West, or Russian political or financial influence in the West,” Anne Applebaum complained recently. “No one has taken seriously the idea that Germans should now make themselves independent of Russian gas, or that France should ban political parties that accept Russian money, or that the U.K. and the U.S. should stop Russian oligarchs from buying property in London or Miami.” We’ll know how serious the NATO alliance is about reining in Putin by how far they’re willing to go to rid themselves of dirty Russian money. China’s not the only power that buys western quiescence towards its abuses, after all.

There are hopeful signs this morning that they’re serious.

I’ll leave you with this uncomfortable scene from yesterday’s Russian national security meeting, which of course was a sham. Putin’s deputies aren’t as keen as he is to launch a major war in Europe and they failed to disguise that fact as well as he would like.

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