He warns that a full-scale invasion would have devastating consequences for Russia but sanctions would hurt the US and NATO allies, too
President Joe Biden has admitted to "differences" among NATO members as to how the alliance would respond to Russian "aggression" in Ukraine and said the US and its allies would suffer from heavy sanctions against Moscow.
"There are differences in NATO as to what countries are willing to do, depending on what happens," Biden told reporters on Wednesday. The response would depend on the scale of the Russian move against Kiev, "to what extent we will be able to get total unity on the NATO front."
At one point, Biden suggested that a "minor incursion" might not necessitate a severe response. He gave the example of cyberwarfare - as opposed to killing Ukrainian troops - and said, "We can respond in the same way."
Biden made the comments in just his second major press conference since taking office a year ago, painting a dark picture of prospects for war in Ukraine. He said Russia will likely make some effort to test and divide NATO, adding that a full-scale invasion would be disastrous for Moscow but also painful for the Western allies.
The US president also seemed to offer conflicting assessments on the likelihood of a full-scale war. At one point, he said of Russian President Vladimir Putin, "My guess is, he will move in, he has to do something." Later, he told another reporter that his Russian counterpart hasn't yet decided on a course of action.
"There's a whole range of things that I'm sure he's trying to calculate, how quickly he can do what he wants to do and what he wants to do," Biden said. "I believe he's accounting the short- and long-term consequences for Russia will be, and I don't think he's made up his mind yet."
Biden said Russia could eventually win a conventional shooting war with Ukraine, at heavy cost of lives, but the costs of occupation would be great. He added that resulting sanctions against Moscow, including potentially eliminating the ability of Russian banks to transact in US dollars, would exact a heavy toll.
"Our allies and partners are ready and willing to impose severe costs on Russia and the Russian economy," Biden said. While acknowledging that the sanctions would be painful for NATO member economies, too, Biden said Putin's potential punitive options, such as cutting off natural gas shipments to the West, would be ruinous for Russia.
"It's not like they have all these wonderful choices out there," Biden said. "This is not all just a cakewalk for Russia. Militarily, they have overwhelming superiority relative to Ukraine, but they'll pay a severe price."
Asked by a reporter about the fact that past sanctions have failed to influence Putin's actions, Biden replied:
There is still hope for a diplomatic solution and the countries could hold a peace summit, Biden said. Russia has demanded a guarantee that Kiev will never become a NATO member and that NATO won't station strategic weapons in Ukraine. Biden said "we can work out something" on the weapons-deployment issue, and Ukraine won't be ready to join NATO in the near term, but a permanent promise on NATO membership can't be made.
Biden also acknowledged concerns about how a war in Ukraine could spread - four NATO members border the country - saying, "The only war that's worse than one that's intended is one that's unintended." He argued that short of "full-blown nuclear war," Putin should understand that he's "not in a very good position to dominate the world."
In any case, the potentially catastrophic consequences of a war in Ukraine dictate caution on all sides, Biden said. A large-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine would be "the most consequential thing that's happened in the world in terms of war and peace since World War II."