Biden predicts Russia ‘will move in’ to Ukraine, but says ‘minor incursion’ may prompt discussion over consequences

“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.

After speaking with Putin twice last month, Biden said he believed his Russian counterpart had a good understanding of the economic sanctions he was preparing to enact.

“He’s never seen sanctions like the ones I promised will be imposed if he moves, number one,” he said, adding the level of punishment would depend on what Russia’s invasion looks like. “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 said.

That includes limiting Russian transactions in US financial institutions — “anything that involves dollar denominations,” Biden said.

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.

In explaining the reference to a “minor incursion” prompting a discussion among Western allies over how to respond, Biden suggested disunity with NATO could lead to debate over how to punish Russia for actions in Ukraine that fall short of a full-scale invasion.

“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.

Emily Horne, spokeswoman for Biden’s National Security Council, said on Twitter that Biden “was referring to the difference between military and non-military/para-military/cyber action by the Russians. Such actions would be met by a reciprocal response, in coordination with Allies and partners.”

The President also warned Russian lives would be lost in an invasion, along with potential Ukrainian casualties.

“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.”

Biden later acknowledged the uncertainty surrounding the situation.

“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 said.

He said senior US officials who had met recently with their Russian counterparts came away from the talks uncertain whether anyone aside from Putin truly knew what he planned to do.

“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.

Biden’s prediction came after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Wednesday urged Ukrainians to not panic and to “calm down” over fears of a possible Russian invasion.

“All our citizens, especially the elderly, need to understand this: Everyone needs to exhale. Calm down. Don’t run for emergency supplies like buckwheat and matches. To all the media: Remain as the media, not become a source of mass hysteria. Do not help the enemy in the pursuit of hype by reporting daily that war may happen tomorrow! This will definitely not stop it.”

“What is new here? Is this not the reality for the past eight years? Didn’t the invasion begin in 2014? Did the threat of the war emerge just now?” he said.

The only reason for “panic is that after eight years we are still influenced by this panic,” he added.

Zelensky said Russia’s “aim is to weaken Ukraine” in order to force Kyiv to concede to Moscow and “to create such a background that our ‘no’ sounds weaker.”

The Ukrainian leader said Moscow is “actively attacking your nerves, not our state. So that you have a constant feeling of panic.”

This story and its headline have been updated with additional reporting.