Your move, Mr. Putin.
Following a high-stakes virtual summit between President Biden and his Russian counterpart Tuesday, the White House appeared to be taking a “wait-and-see” approach to a potential invasion of Ukraine by Moscow.
“We will watch what unfolds in the coming days,” national security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters as he and White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki repeatedly answered that what happens next depends on what Russian President Vladimir Putin does.
Biden and Putin spoke for two hours and one minute Tuesday morning, and Sullivan acknowledged in the afternoon that “we still do not believe that President Putin has made a decision” about whether to send his massed forces across the border and into Ukraine.
“This was a real discussion. It was give-and-take,” Sullivan said in describing the call. “It was not speeches back and forth.”
According to Sullivan, Biden relayed to Putin that any further incursion into Ukraine would be met with “strong economic measures” from the US and its European allies, at one point saying that the president “looked President Putin in the eye and told him today that things we did not do in 2014 [when Russian annexed Crimea] we are prepared to do now.”
However, Sullivan declined to say whether additional American forces would be dispatched to eastern Europe in the event of an invasion.
“The question here is not about whether or not the United States is going to send American service members to the territory of our NATO allies,” said Sullivan, referring to Ukraine’s neighbors Poland and Romania, both members of the alliance. “We do that as a matter of course.
“The question is, what additional capabilities do we provide to ensure that they feel strong and confident in their own sovereignty and territorial integrity?” he continued. “It is those additional capabilities that are on the table in those countries, should Russia move in Ukraine in a more decisive way.”
When asked why the US should wait to take action given that satellite images show thousands of Russian forces massed at the border with Ukraine, Sullivan responded that American policy, in “lockstep with our European allies,” was to deter a Russian invasion and to “show the Russian government that should it choose to engage in such an invasion, there will be those consequences.”
Sullivan also suggested Tuesday that the US could persuade Germany to cut off the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline if Russia invaded Ukraine.
“The fact is the gas is not currently flowing through the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which means that it’s not operating, which means that it’s not leveraged for Putin,” Sullivan claimed. “It is leverage for the West. If Vladimir Putin wants to see gas flow through that pipeline, he may not want to take the risk of invading Ukraine.”
That claim caused an uproar among online critics, who pointed out that Biden waived sanctions against the pipeline in May despite concerns that it would weaken Ukraine’s security by pumping gas directly from Russia to Germany — depriving Kiev of lucrative gas transit fees.
Former ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said in a statement that “Joe Biden should have already stopped Nord Stream 2. To offer it as a threat now is weak and embarrassing. He already handed Putin exactly what he wanted.”
Former US ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell, who also was former President Donald Trump’s acting director of national intelligence, tweeted: “Strategic disaster! [Sullivan] now says that [Nord Stream 2] could be used to leverage Russian behavior. Biden already gave Putin a finished pipeline. Sullivan scrambling now but it’s too late.”
After Sullivan left the podium, White House press secretary Jen Psaki was asked if Biden had laid out a deadline by which Russian forces should pull back from the Ukraine border.
“I’m not going to give you an assessment for that,” Psaki answered. “That’s really up to President Putin.”
Later in the briefing, the press secretary was asked if she knew of any action that would indicate Putin was attempting to avoid a conflict with Ukraine.
“I’m not going to assess that or provide an assessment of that from here,” Psaki answered. “We will know if Russia and President Putin decides to invade Ukraine. I don’t think that will be a secret. And so we will certainly be watching that.
“Our preference is, of course, for that not to happen.”