Did President Joe Biden just tell Russian President Vladimir Putin that it might be OK to launch a “minor incursion” into Ukraine?
Toward the end of his nearly two-hour news conference late Wednesday afternoon, Biden was asked why sanctioning Putin for invading Ukraine would work, given that previous sanctions haven’t had much effect on Russian behavior.
At first, Biden gave a by-the-book response. “Because he’s never seen sanctions like the one I’ve promised,” he replied. “Russia will be held accountable if it invades.”
But then, Biden said that precisely how Putin will be held accountable “depends on what he does.” If he mounts “a minor incursion,” Biden said, “there are differences within NATO about what countries are willing to do.” If it’s “a major invasion,” there will be “severe costs” and “significant harm” for “Russia and the Russian economy.”
So was Biden saying Russia might not incur severe costs and significant harm, if Putin mounts merely a “minor incursion”? And what is a minor incursion? Just another salami slice of eastern Ukraine, beyond Russia’s 2014 incursion into Donbas province and its annexation of Crimea? Just a helicopter landing in the capital? Just a few airstrikes?
As major news outlets sent push alerts with Biden’s comments, White House press secretary Jen Psaki rushed to the rescue with a clarifying statement an hour after the news conference ended:
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.
Good work, but as the entire world already noticed, that’s not what Biden said at all. Or it is what he said at one point during the news conference, but not at another point. Psaki then created her own round of confusion with what her statement went on to say:
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. And he affirmed today that those acts of Russian aggression will be met with a decisive, reciprocal, and united response.
What does she mean by “reciprocal” response? That the U.S. and NATO will match cyberattacks with cyberattacks, paramilitary tactics with paramilitary tactics—and, by extension, an invasion with a counterinvasion? U.S. and NATO officials have said nothing of the sort. (They have made clear that they will not respond with U.S. or NATO troops.) They haven’t, until now, distinguished between one sort of aggressive act or another. Psaki should have stopped with “swift, severe, and united response.”
For weeks now, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, and their counterparts in NATO have engaged in delicate, skillful diplomacy, ensuring that the 30 countries of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization were all on the same page, warning Russia that any further violation of Ukraine’s territorial integrity would result in severe consequences, including supplying arms and intelligence to the Ukrainian army and citizen insurgents involved in repelling a Russian invasion and occupation.
This is a hard thing to do, given the disagreements among a number of NATO countries, the dependence of several of them on Russian oil and gas supplies, and the fact that there is no support within the alliance—including within the Biden administration—for Ukraine to join NATO at the moment. And yet the diplomats made it work.
Earlier on Wednesday, Blinken met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to assure him that the U.S. and its NATO allies were united in their support of Ukrainian sovereignty and independence.* On Friday, Blinken is scheduled to meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov for discussions on possible diplomatic solutions. Blinken and Russia’s deputy foreign minister, Alexander Grushko, have, on separate occasions, pointed to the Minsk agreements—a comprehensive peace accord signed by Russia and Ukraine in 2015, but never implemented by either side—as one possible way out.
The point of Blinken and Sherman’s diplomacy has been—and still is—to persuade Putin that aggression against Ukraine would be too big a gamble, that the costs outweigh the benefits. Now the president of the United States seems to have suggested that there is one form of aggression—a “minor incursion”—where NATO unity would be less than clear-cut.
Does it matter? Had Putin altered his calculus—had he decided against aggression—until Biden uttered that one sentence, at which point the scale of costs and benefits tipped in favor of going to war? Doubtful. Putin, a true Marxist-Leninist, will probably evaluate the balance of forces on what he sees as an objective basis; a stray remark during a two-hour press conference might be of minor consequence.
However, it does complicate Blinken’s task on Friday. Before, he was set to focus on diplomatic off-ramps. Now he first has to reemphasize the many dreadful things the West will do to Russia if Putin makes a move. And if Putin’s objective all along has been to use his 100,000 advancing troops as a bargaining chip to obtain political objectives, notably the permanent exclusion of Ukraine from NATO and the permanent preservation of a Russian “sphere of influence,” then he may well see Biden’s remark as spurring the U.S. to make a deal.
In one sense, what Biden said was true. There is a difference between a minor incursion (define it however you will) and a major invasion. The NATO allies, and perhaps the American public, would be less willing to make sacrifices or take extravagant steps if Putin merely took another slice of eastern Ukraine.
But in the art of diplomacy and deterrence, this is not what a president should say publicly, especially as the moment of truth nears. This was a mistake. We’ll soon find out if it was a big one.
Correction, Jan. 20, 2022: This piece originally misspelled Volodymyr Zelensky’s first name.