WASHINGTON (AP) — Without a full-scale invasion, Russian President Vladimir Putin could take a less dramatic move in Ukraine that would greatly complicate the U.S. and allied response. He could carry out what President Joe Biden calls a “minor intrusion” — perhaps a cyberattack — to give the US and Europe a presence on the type and severity of economic sanctions imposed on Moscow and ways to increase support for Kiev disagreement.
Biden drew widespread criticism on Wednesday that retaliation against Russian aggression in Ukraine would depend on the details. “If it’s a minor intrusion, then we end up fighting over what to do and what not to do, which is one thing,” he said.
Biden and senior administration officials worked to clean up his comments on Thursday. Biden stressed that if “any massed Russian forces cross the Ukrainian border, that would be an invasion” and would be met with a “severe and coordinated economic response.”
But even if the “minor intrusion” talk is seen as a gaffe, it touches on a potential problem: While the United States and allies have agreed to respond strongly to Russian aggression, it’s unclear how they will respond to Russian aggression beyond that Others, such as cyber attacks or support for pro-Russian separatists fighting in eastern Ukraine.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was among those who expressed concern over Biden’s “minor intrusion” remarks.
“We want to remind big countries that there are no small invasions and small countries. Just like losing a loved one without a minor casualty and a little grief,” he tweeted.
Complaints soon emerged that Biden had made clear to Putin where and how to sow discord between the U.S. and its European allies, using only a portion of his vast military force built up near the Ukrainian border to take limited action. Russian officials have said they have no intention of invading Ukraine, but the deployment of a massive combat force of an estimated 100,000 troops on its border has raised fears of a serious land war.
“Deeply disturbing and dangerous,” Rep. Liz Cheney, a Wyoming Republican and a key Democratic ally on certain issues, tweeted about Biden.
“Give the green light to Putin,” said Rep. Mike Garcia, a California Republican, one of many who used the phrase.
One possibility for limited Russian military action: Putin could pull most of Russia’s ground forces off the border, but further support separatists who control the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine. The conflict has killed more than 14,000 people in nearly eight years of fighting.
Biden noted on Thursday that “Russia has long used measures other than overt military operations for aggression — paramilitary tactics, so-called gray zone attacks, and the actions of Russian soldiers not wearing Russian uniforms.”
European allies have largely joined with the United States in demanding that Putin refrain from entering further into Ukrainian territory, promising a tough response if he does. But the allies do not appear to agree on what political and economic penalties to enact, or even what would trigger a response.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said an “invasion of Ukraine on any scale” would be a disaster for Russia and the world, but he did not specify how the West would react. Likewise, his defence secretary, Ben Wallace, told parliament to “prepare a package of international sanctions to ensure that the Russian government is punished if it crosses the line,” but he did not define that line, other than warning Russia refrains from taking “any destabilizing action” in Ukraine.
Asked on Thursday about Biden’s comments on the “minor intrusion”, a French diplomat insisted it did not prompt a reconsideration of the “European consensus” that any new attack on Ukraine’s sovereignty would have a “massive” and serious consequences.” But the diplomat commented after a meeting with Secretary of State Anthony Blinken that he had consulted with his European counterparts on the Ukraine crisis, without elaborating on the consequences or what constituted such an attack.
The official, who asked not to be named, discussed his administration’s views.
Putin has faced limited international consequences after seizing control of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula in 2014 and supporting a separatist insurgency in eastern Ukraine. His central demand for the West was a NATO assurance that Ukraine would never be allowed to join the alliance — a demand Washington and its allies have steadfastly rejected.
Biden noted on Wednesday that coordinating a sanctions strategy is more complicated because punitive measures aimed at weakening Russia’s banking sector would also have a negative impact on the U.S. and European economies.
“So, I have to make sure everyone is on the same page as we move forward,” he said.
New Hampshire Democratic Senator Jeanne Shaheen, a senior member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and one of the leaders of a bipartisan congressional delegation that visited Ukraine over the weekend, said she did not see a relationship with Europeans in Russia. There are signs of divergence in distance. A response has to be triggered.
In their analysis of the Ukraine crisis, political scientist Seth Jones and former CIA paramilitary officer Philip Vaselevsky cite several possible scenarios, barring a full-scale Russian invasion. That could include Putin sending regular troops as “peacekeepers” to the breakaway areas of Donbass in Donetsk and Luhansk, where peace talks were successful, they wrote in an analysis by the Center for Strategic and International Studies last week. Refusing to evacuate until the end.
“All other options would entail significant international sanctions and economic hardship, and would backfire on the goals of weakening NATO or decoupling the United States from its commitment to European security,” they wrote.
Other options include occupying Ukrainian territory to the west to the Dnieper River, which runs south through Kiev to the Black Sea near the Crimean peninsula. Putin may seek to use this as a bargaining chip, or to fully incorporate the territory into the Russian Federation, Jones and Vasselewski wrote.
Charlton reported from Paris. Associated Press writer Sylvia Hui in London contributed to this report.