President Joe Biden's Wednesday afternoon "solo" press conference spent a lot of time on the Russia-Ukraine crisis. While he consistently echoed prior assessments given via White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki (that an invasion could come "at any point"), the most interesting new statements from the president gave a bit more detail as to what he's willing to do or not willing to do regarding "consequences".
The big question that remains is: given any "incursion" or "offensive" by Russia into Eastern Ukraine, will Biden order a military response in support of Kiev, or will the US stop short by merely ramping up sanctions? Biden began early in the Q&A with journalists by underscoring his belief that Putin is planning to invade Ukraine: "my guess is he will move in," he stated.
As Axios underscores, Biden then followed it with statements suggesting the White House really is still at the stage of 'guess work': "But as Biden himself acknowledged, it's unclear whether Putin himself has decided what comes next." He also made a distinction between a "minor incursion" and full-on "invasion" - reportedly angering Ukrainian officials.
"I believe he's calculating what the immediate short-term and the near-term and the long-term consequences of Russia will be. And I don't think he's made up his mind yet," Biden stressed. He admitted that "I don't know if Putin decided what he wants to do" - in a bit of a glaring contradiction to all the breathless admin official statements of the last two weeks asserting an "invasion" is coming. Hilariously, there was also this contradiction during the presser:
Biden: Decision to invade Ukraine "will depend on what side of bed Putin get's up on..."
Biden later: "he's calculating Russia's interests"
And here's CNN detailing his words on an "incursion" vs. major invasion:
But he suggested a "minor incursion" would elicit a lesser response than a full-scale invasion of the country.
"I'm not so sure he is certain what he is going to do. My guess is he will move in. He has to do something," Biden said, describing a leader searching for relevance in a post-Soviet world. "He is trying to find his place in the world between China and the west."
Biden's prediction of an invasion is the firmest acknowledgment to date the United States fully expects Putin to move after amassing 100,000 troops along the Ukraine border.
NOW - Biden on Russia invading Ukraine: "It depends on what it does. It's one thing if it's a minor incursion..."pic.twitter.com/vnkySSSX9f— Disclose.tv (@disclosetv) January 19, 2022
That's when Biden went through different US responses on the table...
"He's never seen sanctions like the ones I promised will be imposed if he moves, number one," the president said. "It's one thing if it's a minor incursion and we end up having to fight about what to do and not do, et cetera."
"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. And that our allies and partners are ready to impose severe cost and significant harm on Russia and the Russian economy," he added. This might include barring Russia from "anything that involves dollar denominations"; and notably in recent months the West has threatened to cut Russia off from SWIFT.
Re: Biden in press conference suggesting a "minor incursion" by Russia into Ukraine would be met with a lesser response, CNN's Matthew Chance (who's in Kyiv) just reported that Ukrainian officials "watched those remarks with horror"— Steve Lookner (@lookner) January 19, 2022
More of the president discussing different levels of a potential incursion...
"If there is something that is where there's Russian forces crossing the border, killing Ukrainian fighters, et cetera, I think that changes everything," the President said. "But it depends on what he does, to what extent we'll get total unity on the NATO front."
"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," he added.
Crucially, and perhaps somewhat disappointing for warmongers in mainstream media, Biden described that it's more likely that any Putin-ordered action will be very limited in scope:
"The cost of going into Ukraine in terms of physical loss of life for the Russians -- they'll be able to prevail over time but it's going to be heavy," he said. "It's going to be real. It's going to be consequential. Putin has a stark choice. Either de-escalation or diplomacy. Confrontation and consequences."
"This is not all just a cake walk for Russia," he went on. "Militarily, they have overwhelming superiority. And as it relates to Ukraine, they'll pay a stiff price immediately, near term, medium term and long term if they do it."
Biden speculated Putin was not seeking "any full-blown war," but said he did believe he was looking for some type of confrontation.
"Do I think he'll test the west? Test the United States and NATO as significantly as he can? Yes, I think he will. But I think he'll pay a serious and dear price for it."
"He doesn't think now will cost him what it's going to cost him," he said. "And I think he'll regret having done it."
"The only thing I am confident of is that decision is totally, solely, completely Putin's decision. Nobody else is going to make that decision. No one else is going to impact that decision. He's making that decision. And I suspect it matters which side of the bed he gets up on in the morning as to exactly what he's going to do," Biden added.
Putin is "calculating" - the president claimed: "I believe he's calculating what the immediate short-term and the near-term and the long-term consequences of Russia will be. And I don't think he's made up his mind yet," he said.
UPDATE: #Ukraine - Russia— Joyce Karam (@Joyce_Karam) January 19, 2022
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The Ukrainian government reaction to Biden's words at such a tense moment wherein Kiev believes some 120,000 Russian troops are stationed near the border is said to be one of "shock" and disappointment, per CNN further:
A Ukrainian official told CNN's Matthew Chance that he is "shocked that the US President Biden would distinguish between incursion and invasion" and suggest that a minor incursion would not trigger sanctions but an invasion would.
"This gives the green light to Putin to enter Ukraine at his pleasure," the official added.
The Ukrainian official said he'd never heard any nuance like this from the US administration before.
"Kyiv is stunned," he added, referring to the Ukrainian government.
Biden hinted at disunity within NATO, which is something that hawks and pundits have feared... that Putin aims precisely to use the troop build-up to drive a wedge between the Western allies.
Meanwhile, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky himself has admitted much of the extreme war rhetoric is "big hype". He said this to his own citizens...
“The risks have not just existed for a day, and they have not become bigger. The only thing that has become bigger is the hype around them,” Ukraine’s President Zelenskyy says regarding threat of Russia invadinghttps://t.co/jGePxEpSPA— DAILY SABAH (@DailySabah) January 19, 2022
Indeed, hopefully cooler heads prevail and can see through the jingoism and hype, perhaps giving diplomacy a chance based on the question of NATO expansion and mutually hammering out the key issue of missile placement in Europe.