April 22, 2024

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Biden Says Russia Likely to Move Against Ukraine, as Blinken Visits the Region

President Biden said he expects Russia to make some kind of move against Ukraine and would face consequences calibrated to the degree of aggression, while the administration’s top diplomat sought to reassure Ukraine’s president of unified support from the West.

Mr. Biden, speaking at a White House news conference on Wednesday, reiterated that Russia would face punishing sanctions should it invade Ukraine, and he said that he is working to keep the North Atlantic Treaty Organization military alliance unified in its response. Mr. Biden said Russian President

Vladimir Putin

faces a stark choice and will regret choosing conflict.

Mr. Biden initially suggested that he thinks Mr. Putin will launch an attack. “My guess is he will move in. He has to do something,” Mr. Biden said. He later said of Mr. Putin, “I don’t think he’s made up his mind yet.”

Hours earlier, Secretary of State

Antony Blinken

told Ukrainian President

Volodymyr Zelensky

in the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv that if Moscow “chooses to renew aggression against Ukraine, it will be met and it will face very severe consequences.”

A senior State Department official confirmed that the Biden administration has approved $200 million in new defensive military assistance to Ukraine, saying on Wednesday that the U.S. “will continue to provide Ukraine the support it needs.” That sum includes Javelin antitank missiles, U.S. officials said, though the administration has stopped short of providing offensive weapons to Ukraine and said it won’t use direct military force to support the country.

“To take very fast steps to modernize the army, we need help here, especially help in such times—difficult times,” Mr. Zelensky said.

President Biden said that the U.S. is ready to unleash sanctions against Russia if President Vladimir Putin makes a move against Ukraine. Biden also laid out a possible diplomatic resolution. Photo: Susan Walsh/Associated Press

The tensions over Ukraine are part of a larger disagreement between Moscow and NATO about security in Eastern Europe, with U.S. officials this week saying Russian troops and weaponry are moving into Belarus—a shift that could position them for deployment to Ukraine. That is in addition to some 100,000 Russian troops that U.S. and European officials estimate to be deployed near Russia’s border with Ukraine.

Russian forces are moving to bracket Ukraine on three sides. The deployments in Belarus expand the Russian military’s already considerable presence north of Ukraine and provides the Russian military with greater firepower should it opt to drive toward Kyiv, among other contingencies. Russia has a substantial force east of Ukraine and has been supporting separatists in that part of the country.

A flotilla of Russian amphibious assault ships, meanwhile, has left the Baltic Sea and is heading through the English Channel, according to photographs on social media and military analysts. The analysts said those ships are likely steaming to the Black Sea to build up Moscow’s already formidable military presence in and around Crimea.

Military force locations:

Military force locations:

Military force locations:

In his nearly two-hour news conference in Washington, Mr. Biden was asked several times about the Ukraine crisis. He suggested that NATO’s response would depend on what Russia does and that short of an invasion, the alliance members would have to deliberate on how to respond.

“Russia will be held accountable if it invades,” Mr. Biden 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. 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.”

He later touched on moves Russia might make against Ukraine other than an invasion, mentioning cyberattacks and efforts by Russian security operatives to sow divisions in Ukraine.

The suggestion that a small incursion might bring less than crippling economic sanctions appeared at odds with weeks of statements from Mr. Biden and administration officials.

His comments drew immediate criticism from some Republicans. “Hedging on the punishment Putin would face for a ‘minor’ invasion of #Ukraine is the opposite of deterrence and is wildly dangerous,” Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said on Twitter.

They also prompted an energetic effort by administration officials to clarify the president’s remarks, issuing statements, taking to

Twitter

and convening a phone call with reporters.

“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,” White House press secretary

Jen Psaki

said in a statement.

A military buildup along the Ukrainian border is further straining ties between Russia and the U.S., after clashes over cybercrime, expulsions of diplomats and a migrant crisis in Belarus. WSJ explains what is deepening the rift between Washington and Moscow. Photo Composite/Video: Michelle Inez Simon

Mr. Biden said possible sanctions would include cutting off Russia from the dollar-denominated international finance system. He reiterated that reinforcements would also flow to NATO members on the alliance’s eastern flank, closest to Russia.

Mr. Biden also articulated a possible diplomatic resolution. He offered to negotiate on the positioning of strategic weapons in Ukraine. He also said that Ukraine’s prospective membership in NATO in the near term isn’t likely, though he said the decision is ultimately the alliance’s. Both issues, Mr. Biden, said were raised by Mr. Putin in their discussions.

On the troop deployment in Belarus, Russian Deputy Defense Minister

Alexander Fomin

said troops from Belarus and Moscow are conducting exercises and taking actions “to neutralize threats” to the borders of the Union State, an alliance that binds Russia and Belarus together in various areas ranging from the economy to defense.

The forces would prepare for “actions not only within their boundaries of responsibility,” but also for threats that suddenly arise from any direction, Mr. Fomin said.

He didn’t specify how many troops would be involved in the exercises, the first phase of which is scheduled to begin on Feb. 9.

To ensure a functioning air defense for the Russian-Belarusian union, 12 Su-35 jets will be relocated to Belarusian territory, in addition to two divisions of the S-400 antiaircraft missile system, Mr. Fomin said. Pantsir-S antiaircraft missile and gun battalions would also be redeployed, he said.

A senior U.S. administration official told reporters on Tuesday that “there can be no doubt about Belarus’s role as an increasingly destabilizing actor in the region.”

The official noted a series of incidents to demonstrate Belarusian efforts, including the recent migrant crisis along its border with Poland—which the official said was “manufactured” by Belarus—and its forced diversion of a European passenger jet last year in order to arrest an opposition activist who was on board.

A photo released Tuesday by Belarus’s Defense Ministry shows military vehicles arriving on a Russian transport train for drills in Belarus.



Photo:

Ministry of Defence Republic of Belarus handout/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister

Sergei Ryabkov

said on Wednesday that Russia didn’t intend to take any aggressive action against Ukraine, “to attack or invade” its neighbor. But Moscow sees a threat in Ukraine’s potential membership of NATO, he said.

On the issue of military maneuvers in Belarus, Mr. Ryabkov urged officials to focus on diplomacy rather than the potential for conflict.

“I assure you, there is no reason to be concerned about anything in connection with these exercises,” he told the Valdai Discussion Club, a Moscow-based discussion group.

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The diplomat also repeated Moscow’s view that the U.S. and NATO were to blame for the precarious security situation in Europe. “Washington and NATO, among other things, use Ukraine as a lever of pressure on Russia,” he said.

The Kremlin has demanded that NATO pull back from Eastern Europe and forswear the addition of potential new members such as Ukraine. U.S. and NATO officials have rejected those demands, but Washington sought to find some common ground on select security issues in a series of meetings last week.

After his stop in Ukraine, Mr. Blinken is set to meet his German, French and British counterparts Thursday in Berlin. The U.S. is seeking a unified position with U.S. allies on potential financial sanctions to be imposed on Russia if it invades Ukraine.

On Friday, Mr. Blinken will sit down with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to take stock of meetings between their deputies and among other officials last week.

Write to Andrew Restuccia at [email protected], William Mauldin at [email protected] and Ann M. Simmons at [email protected]

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