America's top diplomat on Thursday vowed a "united" response from the United States and its European partners to any possible Russian aggression against Ukraine, a day after President Joe Biden suggested there were divisions within the transatlantic alliance over how to react to a smaller-scale Russian operation.
At a news conference with his German counterpart in Berlin and later in a speech, Secretary of State Antony Blinken sought to shift the focus to what he called Russia's threatening actions, after Biden raised doubts about whether the United States and its European allies were in sync on how to respond to any possible Russian attack on Ukraine.
"We have been very clear throughout if any Russian military forces move across the Ukrainian border and commit new acts of aggression against Ukraine that will be met with a swift severe united response from the United States and our allies and partners," Blinken told reporters when asked about the U.S. president's comments.
At a White House news conference on Wednesday, Biden said he expected Russia would move against Ukraine but that there would be differences between Washington and European capitals if Moscow staged a "minor incursion."
"It's one thing if it's a minor incursion and we end up having to fight about what to do and not do," Biden said.
The White House later sought to clarify his remarks, saying any move to seize Ukrainian territory by force would trigger sweeping sanctions from the United States and European governments. And Biden tried to clear up the issue on Thursday, saying if "any assembled Russian units move across the Ukrainian border, that is an invasion" and would be met with "a severe and coordinated economic response."
But the president's words on Wednesday sparked immediate alarm and sharp criticism from Ukraine, Republicans in Congress and former Western diplomats.
"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," Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in a tweet.
In his speech in Berlin, Blinken pushed back against Moscow's portrayal of Ukraine and NATO as threatening Russia and European security, citing Russia's military buildup around Ukraine's borders and its track record of military interventions in former Soviet states. He said it was Moscow that was endangering stability in Europe and the international order by claiming the right to change borders through military force.
"Russia justifies its actions by claiming that Ukraine somehow poses a threat to its security. This turns reality on its head," Blinken said.
"Whose troops are surrounding whom?" he asked. "Which country has claimed another's territory through force? Which military is many times the size of the other? Which country has nuclear weapons? Ukraine isn't the aggressor here. Ukraine is just trying to survive."
It was Russia that had violated agreements that were designed to protect the sovereignty of all countries and ensure advance notice of troop movements, Blinken said. A military offensive designed to redraw Ukraine's borders would shatter the rules and principles established after World War II, and send a dangerous signal to other countries that those rules no longer applied, he said.
"To allow Russia to violate those principles with impunity would drag us all back to a much more dangerous and unstable time," when Europe was divided with Soviet and Western spheres of influence and the world lived in fear of a catastrophic conflict between Moscow and Washington, he said.
Blinken said Russia's effort to destabilize Ukraine had been "relentless," and warned that a military attack would inflict an immeasurable cost in human lives.
"And now Russia is poised to go even further. The human toll of renewed aggression by Russia would be by many magnitudes higher than what we've seen to date," he said.
Blinken, who is due to meet Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Friday in Geneva, said Washington remained open to diplomacy and to work toward a "mutual understanding" with Moscow.
"Russia is entitled to protect itself, like any country. And the United States and the countries of Europe are prepared to discuss Russia's security concerns and how we can address them in a reciprocal way," he said. But Blinken added that the principles of sovereignty or territorial integrity are not "negotiable."