Ukraine’s president rebukes Biden for suggestion of ‘minor’ Russian attack

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Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky has hit back at Joe Biden’s suggestion that a “minor incursion” by Russian forces into Ukraine might not prompt the severe response the west has threatened — a remark that has alarmed allies of the US.

“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,” Zelensky wrote on Twitter on Thursday. “I say this as the President of a great power.”

His comments reflect the dismay in Ukraine at Biden’s remark, made at a news conference in the White House on Wednesday. “I think what you’re going to see is that Russia will be held accountable if it invades. And it 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.

After the press conference, the White House issued a clarification designed to play down the president’s comment.

On Thursday, Biden sought to clarify his remarks further. “If any, any assembled Russian units move across the Ukrainian border that is an invasion.” He added: “Let there be no doubt at all, if Putin makes this choice, Russia will pay a heavy price.”

Antony Blinken, US secretary of state, reinforced the message, stressing after talks in Berlin that the west would respond whatever the scale of Russia’s military action against Ukraine.

“We’ve been very clear throughout that, if any Russian military forces move across the Ukrainian border and commit new acts of aggression, that would be met by a swift, severe, united response from the US and its allies and partners,” he said.

Blinken was in Berlin for talks with German, French and UK foreign ministers ahead of a meeting with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov in Geneva on Friday.

The talks come with tensions still high on the Russia-Ukraine border, where Moscow has massed more than 100,000 troops. International officials have warned of the risks of a new armed conflict in the heart of Europe.

Russia denies that it is planning an invasion but says it could take military action if security demands it has put to the west and Nato are not fulfilled. Moscow has called on the transatlantic military alliance to pledge never to accept Ukraine as a member.

Biden’s comments have focused attention on the scale of the response that would be triggered if Russia invades Ukraine.

EU member states are debating whether cyber attacks or a “false-flag” operation on Ukraine should meet the threshold for massive sanctions against Moscow, or whether these should be triggered in the event of a full invasion.

Blinken acknowledged the problem, saying that Russia had many “tools in its playbook” and had a number of alternatives to a full-scale incursion such as paramilitary strikes and acts of hybrid warfare.

“In each of those scenarios we’re working very closely together to make sure that we effectively define our co-ordinated response,” he said.

Emmanuel Macron, France’s president, on Wednesday urged EU states to conduct their own dialogue with Russia.

“These next few weeks should lead us to bring to fruition a European proposal building a new order of security and stability,” he told the European parliament. “We must build it between Europeans, then share it with our allies within the framework of Nato. And then propose it for negotiation to Russia.”

French officials later insisted that the proposal was not in opposition to the continuing US negotiations with Russia.

Jean-Yves Le Drian, France’s foreign minister, said: “It’s normal that Europeans consult together and that there continues to be close co-operation with our allies and partners, because nothing that concerns European security can be discussed and decided without the full involvement of Europeans.”

France also said it stood ready to continue its support for Nato’s reinforced presence in the Baltic states, and was prepared to carry out new missions in Romania in accordance with Nato decisions.

Blinken denied that the west was split over how to deal with the Russian threat. He said that the consultations the US had held in recent weeks with allies were designed “to ensure that we are speaking and acting together with one voice [when it comes to Russia]”.

He also suggested that Nord Stream 2, the gas pipeline Russia had built under the Baltic Sea, could be used by Germany to deter Moscow from an invasion of Ukraine. “Gas is not flowing through Nord Stream 2 yet,” Blinken said. “It means the pipeline is leverage for Germany, the US and our allies, not Russia.”

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