President Biden’s prognostication Wednesday that Russian forces would likely “move in” to Ukraine has caused outrage in the Eastern European nation that is staring down a massive military buildup by Moscow.
The president raised alarm in Kiev with a series of comments in his first solo White House news conference, including the implication that the Western response to a “minor incursion” by Russia would be less robust than expected.
“It’s one thing if it’s a minor incursion, and then we end up having a fight about what to do and what not do, etc.,” Biden said. “But if they actually do what they’re capable of doing with the force they’ve massed on the border, it is going to be a disaster for Russia.”
The president also warned that “the cost of going into Ukraine in terms of the physical loss of life for the Russians — and they’ll, they’ll be able to prevail over time, but it’s going to be heavy. It’s going to be real. It’s going to be consequential.”
“My guess is he will move in, he has to do something,” Biden said later in the event while musing about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s potential motivation for ordering an attack.
Hours before the news conference, Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky attempted to reassure his people that there was no reason to panic despite the Russian buildup. However, the US president’s statements shocked Ukrainians, with one official likening them to a “green light” for invasion.
“Kyiv is stunned,” the official told CNN.
Oleksiy Sorokin, political editor for the Kyiv Independent news site, told Yahoo News that Biden’s comments were “absolutely absurd.”
“We followed Zelensky’s speech and we’re like, ‘OK, so this is the strategy now — don’t panic.’ And then two hours later, we get the president of the United States confirming that Russia will invade and the whole speech of Zelensky, his whole plan, just goes to pieces.”
“My first reaction was, ‘Oh, my God, what am I hearing right now?’” Sorokin added. “It felt like he was giving Putin a green light to invade Ukraine. I was thinking, ‘When should I wake up tomorrow, so [as] not to miss the Russian invasion?’”
“As a Ukrainian, it feels like Biden has just allowed Putin to invade my country. If it’s a ‘minor incursion,’ it will even go unpunished,” Olga Rudenko, chief editor of the Kyiv Independent, tweeted Wednesday.
Even Zelensky himself took a swipe at Biden, tweeting Thursday, “We want to remind the great powers that there are no minor incursions and small nations. Just as there are no minor casualties and little grief from the loss of loved ones. I say this as the President of a great power.”
The Ukrainian president’s office later appeared to play down Biden’s language.
“It is definitely not worth evaluating the words spoken the day before as something separate from the integral policy of the American administration,” Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Zelensky’s office, told Reuters Thursday.
Alyona Getmanchuk, director of the New Europe Center, a Kiev think tank, told Yahoo News that she and her compatriots are “really confused and disoriented by hearing quite contradictory messages from Ukrainian officials and Western, especially American, officials.”
As tensions grow, Tatiana Vasilenko, a former advertising executive based in Kiev, said people “are more and more worried, especially since the Western media is making much more direct statements than the Ukrainian.”
In the days following Biden’s press conference, Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with Zelensky as well as his British, French, German and Russian counterparts in the latest effort to ease the tensions.
On Friday, Blinken said the US and Russia are “on a clearer path to understanding each other’s positions,” but warned of a “swift and severe response” if Moscow opts to invade.
Sorokin told Yahoo he saw Blinken’s visit to Kiev as a “shield” to prevent further Russian action in the aftermath of Biden’s gaffe.
“It feels like that many diplomats are here to just prevent a Russian escalation because while they’re here, Russia, obviously, is not going to attack. I can’t imagine Russian tanks moving across the border when Blinken is in town,” he said.
The president’s press conference went down just as badly in the rest of Eastern Europe, even after he vowed to “increase troop presence in Poland, in Romania, etc.” if an invasion of Ukraine took place.
“In Russia, Biden is considered a weak president, and Kremlin bureaucrats see his lack of leadership as an opportunity for action. Biden just confirmed their view,” left-wing Polish journalist Slawomir Sierakowski wrote. “Trickling in a few more troops is not a policy; it is an alibi. The West must be seen to be doing something to preserve its moral virtue, so it offered a symbolic gesture in the hope of resuming its focus on domestic concerns.”
“Biden has not even said whether the deployments in Poland and Romania will become a permanent presence (they are currently rotational),” Sierakowski continued. “As a result, the US response will neither improve Ukraine’s situation nor assure Poland’s security.”
At least one major European leader has continued to voice their support for Ukraine, while sniping at Biden’s poor choice of words
“Be in no doubt that if Russia were to make any kind of incursion into Ukraine, or on any scale, whatever, I think that that would be a disaster, not just for Ukraine, but for Russia. It would be a disaster for the world,” UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson told reporters Thursday.
While Biden has promised “severe” economic sanctions if an invasion occurs, the US has also allowed Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania to dispatch American-made weapons to Ukraine.