USA – Small invasion, big invasion – politics

At the end of this press conference, you no longer know exactly who is actually the one who gets on Joe Biden’s nerves more. Is it Russian President Vladimir Putin who is threatening to invade Ukraine? Or is it this cheeky journalist from the right-wing broadcaster Newsmax who seriously asks the president why, according to a poll, half of Americans believe he has dementia? “I have no idea,” Biden replies dryly.

The other questions Biden will be asked this afternoon are more polite and the President puts more effort into the answers. After all, he is the host here. Joe Biden has been in office for a year now, and on Wednesday he wanted to take stock of these first twelve months. To do this, he stood in front of the media representatives in the White House for almost two hours. This is unusual for Biden, who rarely gives formal press conferences. But on Wednesday he was in the mood to talk.

Some of the things Biden said were interesting, though perhaps not in the way his staff associates that adjective. For example, when it came to Russia and Ukraine: he expects that Putin “will advance,” Biden casually let the journalists know. That, as everyone knows, is the great fear in Europe. But that the President of the United States, who is usually well informed, more or less firmly expects a Russian attack on Ukraine, had not been heard so clearly before.

Even more surprising was that Biden was remarkably candid afterwards about how the West might respond in an emergency. Biden warned that Putin would have to reckon with tough economic sanctions in the event of an invasion. Russia would then be cut off from transactions with the American dollar. As far as the well-known terminology.

But the President was also quite willing to say that the NATO countries, which always pretend to be united towards Russia, are in fact by no means in agreement on the details of a reaction. On the contrary: “There are differences,” said Biden. If one interprets it correctly, then apparently there are quite different views within the alliance as to what exactly should be considered an invasion and how Russia should be punished if Russian aggression remains below a certain threshold.

In the press conference, Biden used the English term “minor incursion”, which translated means something like “minor idea”. In the military context, this means advances into the territory of another state that are limited in terms of time and personnel. And how NATO should behave when Putin orders such an action is, according to Biden, quite controversial in the alliance. “It’s one thing when it’s a minor idea and we end up arguing about what to do and what not to do and stuff like that,” Biden said. In the case of a large invasion, however, the matter is clear.

This fine line between a small and a large invasion, which may make sense in practical terms, has always been negated in Washington. An invasion is an invasion is an invasion, the US State Department drummed into journalists just last week. Accordingly, some reporters reacted in disbelief to Biden’s choice of words on Wednesday. A Reuters correspondent asked the president whether he had just given Putin permission to wage a little war against Kiev. “Good question,” he replied. Apparently Biden realized at that moment that he had talked. Rather, he meant Russian cyber attacks on Ukraine or provocations by secret agents, he said. However, Biden was unable to completely refute the suspicion that the West is giving Putin at least a little military leeway in Ukraine.

The White House, well aware that Biden tends to say things spontaneously that he shouldn’t say, then issued a statement an hour after the press conference: “If any Russian unit crosses the Ukrainian border, it constitutes another invasion to which a swift, severe and united response will be made by the United States and our allies,” it said.

Whether such a press statement removed the doubts that Biden had sown about the determination and unity of the West remains to be seen. In any case, a number of Republican senators in the Capitol took advantage of the blunder to harshly criticize Biden. Security policy hardliner Tom Cotton tweeted that the president gave Putin the “green light” for a limited invasion. A Ukrainian government official was quoted on CNN as saying he was “shocked that US President Biden distinguished between intrusion and invasion”. This is tantamount to allowing Moscow to attack the country.

Some US partners are also likely to have heard Biden’s statements on how the Ukraine crisis could be resolved with astonishment. Of course, the West could not meet Russia’s demand for an official guarantee that Ukraine would never become a NATO member, the president said. This is contrary to principles of international law.

But everyone knows that the country will not be able to join the alliance for all sorts of other reasons, Biden added. That sounded very much as if he wanted to promise Putin something informally that he couldn’t promise formally. It would be conceivable that such an agreement would be discussed in secret, at a summit meeting between the two presidents, for example, as Biden promised. It is, of course, unusual for the President of the USA to speculate about this publicly in front of journalists. But that’s Joe Biden.

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