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Biden hammers home warning about Ukraine

by Compiled by Democrat-Gazette Staff From Wire Reports | January 21, 2022 at 7:08 a.m.
A Ukrainian soldier keeps watch Thursday in a trench on the line of separation from pro-Russian rebels in Mariupol in Ukraine’s Donetsk region. Russia has positioned an estimated 100,000 troops near its border with Ukraine. (AP/Andriy Dubchak)

WASHINGTON -- President Joe Biden insisted Thursday that the United States would not accept even a "minor incursion" of Ukraine by Russia, as the White House continued efforts to clarify Biden's remarks Wednesday suggesting that it might.

"I've been absolutely clear with President [Vladimir] Putin. He has no misunderstanding. Any, any assembled Russian units move across the Ukrainian border, that is an invasion," Biden told reporters Thursday at the start of a White House event.

Such an invasion would be met with a "severe and coordinated economic response," Biden added, noting that those consequences have been "laid out very clearly for President Putin."

"Let there be no doubt at all. If Putin makes this choice, Russia will pay a heavy price," Biden said.

On Wednesday, in the second news conference of his presidency, Biden said he expected Russia to take some sort of action to "move in" and invade Ukraine and that the U.S. response "depends on what it does."

"It's one thing if it's a minor incursion and then we end up having a fight about what to do and not do, et cetera," 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 if they further invade Ukraine."

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Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy pushed back against Biden's remarks Thursday morning without naming him.

"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," Zelenskyy said in a tweet.

GOP lawmakers slammed Biden on Thursday for what they called a message of weakness regarding the escalating situation in Russia and Ukraine.

"Words matter when you're in this type of crisis, and words matter when you're standing at the presidential podium," said Rep. Michael Waltz, R-Fla. "Now, [Biden] may have used his team to try to spin and backtrack afterwards, but Putin got the message, the Kremlin got the message, the Ukrainian people got the message."

A bipartisan delegation of senators traveled to Ukraine over the weekend to reassure leaders in Kyiv that the United States stands with them. Those senators spoke with Biden on Wednesday morning to brief him about their trip.

In a phone call with Biden in December -- their second in a month -- Putin warned that any new sanctions on Moscow could result in "a complete rupture of relations" between the two countries. Putin has demanded that the United States and NATO agree to security guarantees that would bar Ukraine from joining NATO and rule out any eastward expansion by the U.S.-led military alliance.

Earlier this month, U.S. and Russian delegations met for talks in Europe but hit an impasse, as Russia continued to deny plans to invade Ukraine. White House officials have repeatedly emphasized that there will be "massive consequences" for Russia if it renews its aggression against Ukraine.

Vice President Kamala Harris, who made three television appearances Thursday morning and who also sought to clarify Biden's remarks, said on "Good Morning America" that she is briefed every morning with Biden on threats to national security and other matters, and is often in the Situation Room with the president for discussions about Russia and Ukraine.

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"What I can tell you is that the president has been very clear that if Russia takes aggressive action, it will be met with serious, severe and a unified response and consequences," Harris said. "And that position that we have taken is grounded in a number of values that we hold dear, including the importance of respecting the sovereignty and territorial integrity in this case of Ukraine. We have not wavered from that perspective."

BLINKEN MEETING

Biden's comments came as U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken prepared to meet today in Geneva with Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in a high-stakes bid to ease tensions.

Before traveling to Geneva, Blinken warned in Berlin that "if any Russian military forces move across the Ukrainian border and commit new acts of aggression against Ukraine, that will be met with a swift, severe, united response from the United States and our allies and partners."

Later, Blinken accused Russia of threatening the foundations of world order with its buildup of an estimated 100,000 troops near Ukraine.

Russia must face a concerted and severe global response if it invades, he said in a speech in Berlin, the city that symbolized the Cold War split between East and West.

"These are difficult issues we are facing, and resolving them won't happen quickly," Blinken said.

He later told an audience at the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences that Russia's actions toward Ukraine are an attempt to subvert international norms and just the latest in a series of violations of numerous treaties and other commitments Moscow has made to respect the sovereignty and territory of other countries.

"Perhaps no place in the world experienced the divisions of the Cold War more than this city," Blinken said. "Here, President Kennedy declared all free people citizens of Berlin. Here, President Reagan urged Mr. Gorbachev to tear down that wall. It seems at times that President Putin wants to return to that era. We hope not."

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Blinken met earlier with top diplomats from Britain, France and Germany to project a united front over concerns that Russia is planning to invade Ukraine. He met Ukraine's president in Kyiv a day earlier.

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, speaking alongside Blinken, said her country, like the United States, is committed to imposing "grave consequences" if Russia move forces into Ukraine.

"The coordination and consultation amongst us allies couldn't be more intensive than it is," she said.

At the same time, while NATO members unanimously voiced support this month for maintaining the alliance's "open-door" policy that could permit Ukraine's eventual membership, they have differing positions on Kyiv's accession and how exactly to respond to a Russia assault.

Jim Townsend, who served as a senior Pentagon official for Europe, said a major point of divergence was potential sanctions related to the energy sector.

"That's Europe's Achilles heel, their dependency on Russia for oil and gas. So if sanctions imperil energy supplies, nations are less likely to sanction that sector," he said. "With these fissures, strong U.S. and NATO leadership is vital; [NATO] Secretary-General Stoltenberg and Tony Blinken will have to be at the top of their game to keep everyone together in the face of Russian pressure."

In addition, Germany's new government has only haltingly signaled a willingness to pause the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which will transport Russian gas to Western Europe, as a retaliatory move if Russia invades. Blinken, meanwhile, has suggested that the project will be abandoned if war starts, something the German government has not affirmed.

Not only does Chancellor Olaf Scholz's fledgling coalition face internal divisions over Russia and the Nord Stream 2 project, Germany already has deep energy and trade relations to consider when it comes to dealing with Moscow, as the country is the largest importer of Russian natural gas. After China, Germany is Russia's largest trade partner.

Successive U.S. administrations have pressured Berlin to take a harder line on Russia. During the 2008 NATO summit that yielded a tentative promise of membership for Ukraine, it was Germany and France that opposed Ukraine's rapid admission into the alliance.

In another difference, Germany, unlike some other European nations, has declined to provide defensive weapons to Ukraine.

Blinken took pains Thursday to stress that the U.S. and its partners are united, noting that American diplomats have held more than 100 meetings with allies in recent weeks "to ensure that we are speaking and acting together with one voice when it comes to Russia."

"That unity gives us strength, a strength I might add that Russia does not and cannot match," he said. "It's why we build voluntary alliances and partnerships in the first place. It's also why Russia recklessly seeks to divide us."

NEW SANCTIONS

In Washington, the U.S. Treasury Department levied new sanctions Thursday against four Ukrainian officials, including two current members of parliament who administration officials say are part of a Russian influence effort to set the pretext for further invasion of Ukraine.

The sanctions name parliament members Taras Kozak and Oleh Voloshyn and two former government officials. All four have been intimately involved in disinformation efforts by Russia's federal security service, known as the FSB, according to the Treasury Department.

Blinken said the four men were at the heart of a Kremlin effort begun in 2020 "to degrade the ability of the Ukrainian state to independently function."

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, a New Hampshire Democrat who co-led a bipartisan congressional delegation to Ukraine last weekend, told reporters Thursday that she understood the administration was still analyzing what the impact would be on other countries if Russia was banned from SWIFT, a banking system that handles the flow of money around the world.

U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin, D-Mich., urged the administration in a tweet to take action that makes certain that "Russian oligarchs that support Putin" aren't "able to spend their weekends shopping in Monaco and Paris."

Kozak, who controls several news channels in Ukraine, is accused of amplifying false narratives about Zelenskyy's inner circle and the 2020 elections. Voloshyn has worked with Russia's federal security service to undermine Ukrainian government officials, Treasury officials say.

Treasury officials say Voloshyn also worked with Konstantin Kilimnik, a Russian national who was previously sanctioned for attempting to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election and passing on information to Russian intelligence.

The department also sanctioned Ukraine's former deputy secretary for national security and defense councils, Vladimir Sivkovich.

The administration says Sivkovich worked last year with a network of Russian intelligence activists to carry out influence operations that attempted to build support for Ukraine to officially cede Crimea to Russia in exchange for a drawdown of Russian-backed forces. Russian troops seized Crimea in 2014, and Russia then annexed the Black Sea peninsula.

The other former official cited is Volodymyr Oliynyk, who Treasury officials say worked at the direction of the Russian federal security service to gather information about Ukrainian critical infrastructure. Oliynk is currently living in Russia, according to the Treasury Department.

NAVAL DRILLS

Meanwhile, Russia announced Thursday new naval drills in several parts of the world this month and said the West is plotting "provocations" in Ukraine.

Amid a buildup of Russian troops near the border with Ukraine and joint war games with Belarus, the Defense Ministry said it will also conduct maneuvers involving the bulk of Russia's naval potential.

"The drills are intended to practice navy and air force action to protect Russian national interests in the world's oceans and to counter military threats to the Russian Federation," the ministry said, adding that they will start this month and run through February.

It said the exercise will involve more than 140 warships and more than 60 aircraft, and will be conducted in littoral waters and more distant "operationally important" areas, including the Mediterranean, northeastern Atlantic and the Pacific Ocean.

The ministry said several Russian warships are currently taking part in a joint exercise with China and Iran in the Gulf of Oman that began Tuesday and will last until the weekend.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said Ukrainian and Western claims of an imminent Russian attack on Ukraine are a "cover for staging large-scale provocations of their own, including those of military character."

"They may have extremely tragic consequences for the regional and global security," Zakharova said.

She pointed to the delivery of weapons to Ukraine by British military transport planes in recent days, saying that Ukraine perceives Western military assistance as a "carte blanche for a military operation in Donbas."

Donbas, in eastern Ukraine, is under the control of Russia-backed separatists who have fought Ukrainian forces for nearly eight years, a conflict that has killed more than 14,000 people.

Ukraine said earlier this week that it has taken the delivery of anti-tank missiles from the U.K. It has rejected Moscow's claims that it plans an offensive to reclaim control of separatist-held areas in the country's eastern industrial heartland.

In a move that further beefs up forces near Ukraine, Russia has sent an unspecified number of troops from its far east to its ally Belarus, which shares a border with Ukraine, for the war games that run through Feb. 20. Ukrainian officials have said Moscow could use Belarusian territory to launch a potential multipronged invasion.

The head of the European Union's executive arm, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen reiterated Thursday that the EU "will respond with massive economic and financial sanctions" if Russia invades Ukraine. "We hope an attack won't happen, but if it does, we are prepared," von der Leyen said during an online speech to the Davos business forum.

Information for this article was contributed by Amy B. Wang, Mariana Alfaro, Felicia Sonmez, Missy Ryan, Loveday Morris, Isabelle Khurshudyan, Perry Stein in Brussels, David L. Stern , Rick Noack of The Washington Post; and by Matthew Lee, Aamer Madhani, Frank Jordans, Vladimir Isachenkov, Vanessa Gera, Lorne Cook and Ellen Knickmeyer of The Associated Press.


  photo  “I’ve been absolutely clear” with Russian President Vladimir Putin, President Joe Biden told reporters Thursday in clarifying his remarks on Ukraine the day before. “Let there be no doubt at all. If Putin makes this choice, Russia will pay a heavy price,” Biden said. (The New York Times/Doug Mills)
 
 


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