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White House walks back Biden’s Russian invasion gaffe

President Joe Biden during a press conference on Jan. 19, 2022. (White House/Released)
January 21, 2022

After President Joe Biden suggested on Wednesday a “minor incursion” by Russia into Ukraine would elicit a mild response from the U.S., the White House attempted to walk back the comments after backlash.

While addressing a possible Russian invasion of Ukraine on Wednesday, Biden said “It’s one thing if it’s a minor incursion” that leads to a fight “about what to do and not do.” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki subsequently defended Biden’s remarks, reframing them as an attempt to show the administration is prepared for “a range of scenarios.”

“You know, I think he — we have a range of what he was — the point he was making is that we have a range of tools, right? I’m not going to outline for you here ‘what if this, what if that.’ I think what should be clear to everyone — and I think he was very clear on this this morning — is that if Russia, if President Putin decides to invade Ukraine, if they move military troops, military across the border, that’s an invasion.  And there will be severe economic consequences,” Psaki said.  

“We also know that we need to be prepared for a range of scenarios.  And we have a range of tools and tactics at our disposal.  Obviously, we just announced sanctions this morning, and they have not invaded,” she continued, later reiterating that there will be “severe economic consequences” if Russian forces move into Ukraine.  

On Thursday, President Biden also attempted to clarify his Wednesday remarks that “stunned” Ukrainian officials.

“I’ve been absolutely clear with President Putin.  He has no misunderstanding.  If any — any — assembled Russian units move across the Ukrainian border, that is an invasion.  But — and it would be met with severe and coordinated economic response that I’ve discussed in detail with our allies, as well as laid out very clearly for President Putin,” Biden said on Thursday.

“But there is no doubt — let there be no doubt at all that if Putin makes this choice, Russia will pay a heavy price.”

Also on Thursday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky pushed back on Biden, tweeting, “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.”

A Ukrainian official told CNN that Biden’s distinction between an “incursion” and invasion “gives the green light to Putin to enter Ukraine at his pleasure,” adding that the Ukrainian government is “stunned” by his comments.