President Biden told a White House press conference Wednesday that Russia will pay a “dear price” if it takes military action against neighboring Ukraine, hours after Secretary of State Antony Blinken huddled with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in Kyiv to kick off a hastily organized mission to head off a war in Europe.
Mr. Biden said he believes Russia is preparing to take action against Ukraine, though he doesn’t think President Vladimir Putin has decided what he will do. He acknowledged that NATO countries are not entirely unified on how to respond to a Russian move short of war, but he said Russia risks freezing itself out of the international financial system if it takes further military action.
Mr. Biden, who met with a bipartisan delegation of U.S. lawmakers earlier in the day urging a tough stand against Moscow, said Mr. Putin faces a decision. He said it is not clear whether even the Russian leader knows what’s coming next.
“I’m not so sure that he is certain what he is going to do,” Mr. Biden said. “My guess is he will move in.”
U.S. and European leaders have sounded the alarm in recent months as Russia mobilized an estimated 100,000 troops and heavy equipment near the border with Ukraine. Russian officials have repeatedly denied that an invasion is in the works, but the Kremlin has been demanding a rewrite of the security arrangements along Russia’s western borders.
In sometimes unclear remarks, Mr. Biden at one point said a “minor incursion” — including, he suggested, an attack limited to cyberspace — would elicit a lesser response from NATO than would a full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine.
SEE ALSO: Biden administration scrambles as Kremlin escalates again on Ukraine
“It’s very important that we keep everyone in NATO on the same page,” he said.
Mr. Blinken met with U.S. Embassy staff in the Ukrainian capital as the U.S. and its allies nervously monitored a major buildup of Russian land and naval forces close to the Ukrainian border.
The State Department said Mr. Blinken, who is set to meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Friday, is hoping for a diplomatic solution to the crisis, but he told Mr. Zelenskyy that the Biden administration has prepared harsh moves against Moscow if Mr. Putin initiates military action.
“We’ve made it very clear to Moscow that if it chooses to renew aggression against Ukraine, it will mean that it will face very severe consequences — and again, that’s coming not just from the United States but from countries across Europe and beyond,” Mr. Blinken told a joint news conference in Kyiv alongside Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba.
“Our strength depends on preserving our unity, and that includes unity within Ukraine. I think one of Moscow’s long-standing goals has been to try to sow divisions between and within countries, and quite simply we cannot and will not let them do that,” he added.
A State Department spokesman said Mr. Blinken and Mr. Zelenskyy discussed increased military and economic support for Ukraine. The secretary of state again promised that NATO would strike no deal with Russia without Ukraine’s endorsement.
Russia has been backing a pro-Moscow separatist movement fighting the Western-backed government in eastern Ukraine. In recent days, the Kremlin has escalated the crisis with a buildup of forces near the border and demands for a NATO guarantee to never offer membership in the Western military alliance to former Soviet states such as Ukraine and Georgia.
Mr. Blinken accused Russia of planning to add more troops and said the number could double “on relatively short order.” He didn’t elaborate, but Russia and Belarus said Tuesday that they will begin holding joint military exercises near the Belarus-Ukraine border. Belarus is another authoritarian former Soviet republic that Mr. Putin has sought to draw into Moscow’s orbit.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov blamed the tensions on the U.S. and its European allies. He said Wednesday that Washington and Brussels are not taking the Kremlin’s legitimate security fears seriously.
“It’s true that the situation in the area of European security is critical,” Mr. Ryabkov told a public discussion forum in Moscow. “It’s become so because of Washington and NATO, which, among other things, use Ukraine as leverage against Russia.”
Mr. Blinken travels Thursday to Berlin to meet with German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock and will hold talks with officials from Britain and France.
State Department spokesman Ned Price said the meeting will focus on “joint efforts to deter further Russian aggression against Ukraine” and coordinating the allies’ “readiness to impose massive consequences and severe economic costs on Russia” in the event of military action.
Mr. Biden told Mr. Putin in a December video call that Russia would be slapped with severe sanctions if it moved into Ukraine. He also said the U.S. would increase military aid to the beleaguered nation. Mr. Biden doubled down on that threat at his press conference, saying Mr. Putin “has never seen sanctions” like the one he will impose.
“Russia will be held accountable if it invades,” he said.
In his remarks to U.S. Embassy staff, Mr. Blinken acknowledged the stress for American diplomats operating in a country that soon could face military conflict, particularly when the war could come “with very short notice.”
“I want you to know that your colleagues around the world are thinking of you, looking at what’s going on here, and, most important, we as a department in Washington are here for you — very, very focused on the well-being, the safety, the security of our community here, including your families,” he said.
Some of the senators who conferred with Mr. Biden returned recently from a trip to Ukraine, where they met with Mr. Zelenskyy and reaffirmed U.S. support.
Sen. James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Wednesday that the administration is “about three months behind where they should be at this time” in responding to Russia’s troop buildup on the border.
“Russia, they’re continuing to build up,” Mr. Inhofe said in a statement. “We know what they’re doing. … The best way the United States can support our friends in Ukraine is to quickly deliver additional aid and bolster Ukraine’s defenses.”
Mr. Inhofe, who did not attend the meeting with the president, compared Mr. Biden’s response to the crisis to President Obama’s reaction to Moscow’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in 2014. He said the Obama administration failed to send aid to Ukraine in advance of the invasion.
“Sadly, this is history repeating itself,” Mr. Inhofe said.
• Joseph Clark contributed to this report, which is based in part on wire service reports.