Some analysts think Biden’s statement shows a lack of mental health, but others suggest that it could be a way to drag Russia into a difficult war arena in Eastern Europe.
US President Joe Biden made a telling statement during his press conference on Wednesday, suggesting that a small-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine might not lead NATO to respond with full force. This is in stark contrast to previous guarantees from Brussels to Kiev.
“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,” the US president said, openly disclosing NATO’s disunity over Russian actions in Ukraine.
While White House spokesman and other American officials ran to “clarify” what Biden meant with “a minor incursion” after the briefing, the president’s loose language might persuade hardcore policymakers in the Kremlin that Russia can invade some portions of Ukraine without meeting resistance from NATO.
“The US is clearly not ok with small-scale Russian incursion into Ukraine. When President Biden made that comment yesterday, it was a mistake. I think he was tired and confused and he simply messed up the message. He did not know exactly how to respond to the question and he should have,” says Matthew Bryza, the former US ambassador to Azerbaijan.
Bryza underlined that following Biden’s strange remarks, White House and US National Security Council spokespersons alongside the Secretary of State Antony Blinken emphasised that any Russian attack will be met with a “swift, severe” response from Washington.
Even a paramilitary Russian attack will be met with a reciprocal attack by the US and its allies, said Jen Psaki, the White House spokesperson, showing Washington’s efforts to correct Biden’s careless language. “I have never heard of a paramilitary reciprocal attack by the US and its allies,” Bryza, who had also worked in the White House in the past, tells TRT World.
But the damage had already been done by that point. Ukrainians were furious about how a statement like that could come from Biden at such a sensitive time. "This gives the green light to Putin to enter Ukraine at his pleasure," an Ukrainian official told CNN.
It also sends a discouraging message to US-armed and backed Ukrainian armed forces that it’s okay not to fight with the Russians if “a minor” Russian incursion is fine with Biden.
Biden’s mental health
Biden’s “minor incursion” remark also triggered debate in Washington over his mental fitness for the office of the presidency. He is the oldest man ever sworn into the White House in the country’s history.
“This is almost at a satirical level by the senile guy,” says Gregory Simons, an associate professor at the Institute for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Uppsala University, referring to the 79-year-old president’s controversial remarks.
“I do think he is no longer completely there mentally and this is why people try to micro control him and what he says,” Simmons tells TRT World.
Biden’s old age and mental difficulties might put not only Ukraine, but also the US, in danger. “I think Biden’s statement will reinforce the belief in the Kremlin that Biden is tired and gets confused and could be unpredictable as an interlocutor,” Bryza says.
“I get the impression that they [Russians] consider him to be like a late Brezhnev and do not take him seriously and this is understandable,” says Simmons, referring to the Soviet Union’s former leader Leonid Brezhnev.
Simmons’s comparison is interesting. Brezhnev, an Ukrainian-origin communist leader, was even younger than Biden when he died at 76 in office.
Also “the minor incursion” is not Biden’s first misstep. Many analysts thought that Biden’s handling of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan was also a total mess. That also feeds fears in Kiev about Biden’s leadership and reliability.
Despite the White House’s best efforts to clarify US positions regarding Ukraine, it’s not clear it will make sense in Moscow. In Berlin, Blinken reminded the world that US positions will stay unchanged, emphasising “the total rejection of Russia’s outrageous demands that NATO will never include Ukraine and Georgia as members” according to Bryza.
Biden’s controversial remarks might also poison talks between Blinken and Russia’s experienced Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Geneva on Friday. Blinken in Berlin rejected not only Russia’s demands on Ukraine and Georgia but also its demands on NATO withdrawal from countries, which became part of NATO after 1997.
There is then little left to discuss for them in Geneva except the status of nuclear weapons in Europe and Russia. While Moscow believes that NATO’s enlargement across Eastern Europe close to Russian borders compromises its regional and national security interests, Washington charges that Russia violates its previous pledges on not threatening any European country.
According to Bryza, with current deployment along its border with Ukraine, Russians are violating the 1994 Budapest Memorandum in which Moscow promised to support Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity if Kiev gave up nuclear weapons, which it did.
How Ukranians reacted
"Kyiv (Kiev) is stunned," an Ukrainian official said, referring to Biden's gaffe. The official himself was also “shocked” by Biden's talk of incursion like a light prison sentence for Ukraine.
“Ukrainians could begin their own Saakashvilli moment if they are dumb enough to believe the facade of American guarantees,” Simmons says, referring to the former pro-Western Georgian leader Mikheil Saakashvilli, who was also a governor in Ukraine sometime in the 2010s.
After falling out with both Ukrainian and Georgian states, Saakashvilli lost both citizenships, becoming stateless in 2017. While his citizenship was restored by current Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, a former actor, he ended up in a Georgian prison while crossing the country’s borders illegally. He remains imprisoned in a country he formerly led.
Simmons finds similarities between him and the Ukrainian leader. “Zelensky is a desperate politician now under domestic pressure and can do dumb things. He is trying to remain relevant,” the professor says.
Zelensky was trying to do his best on Wednesday, urging his citizens “to exhale.”
“Calm down. Don't run for emergency supplies like buckwheat and matches. To all the media: Remain as the media, not become a source of mass hysteria. Do not help the enemy in the pursuit of hype by reporting daily that war may happen tomorrow!” he said.
“This will definitely not stop it."