Politics

Biden pledges ‘full force’ to defend Americans, NATO allies with Ukraine under Russian threat

Key Points
  • President Joe Biden said the United States was prepared to defend NATO members as the crisis on Ukraine's border with Russia intensifies.
  • "Make no mistake, the United States will defend every inch of NATO territory with the full force of American power. An attack against one NATO country is an attack against all of us," Biden said.
  • He reiterated the U.S. commitment to Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity and issue fresh warnings to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
  • Over the weekend, Biden spoke to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Putin in separate phone calls.
VIDEO10:3810:38
Pres. Biden's full remarks on Russia and Ukraine: We are ready to continue pursuing high-level diplomacy

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden said Tuesday afternoon the United States was prepared to defend NATO members as the crisis on Ukraine's border with Russia intensifies.

"Make no mistake, the United States will defend every inch of NATO territory with the full force of American power. An attack against one NATO country is an attack against all of us," Biden said, evoking the alliance's collective defense rule known as Article 5.

"If Russia proceeds, we will rally the world," Biden said, adding that Washington's allies were ready to impose powerful sanctions that will "undermine Russia's ability to compete economically and strategically."

Speaking from the East Room of the White House, Biden reiterated U.S. commitment to Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity. The president said he will not deploy American service members to Ukraine but instead to NATO member countries.

Biden's address comes as Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin traveled to Brussels to meet with NATO defense ministers. Austin will meet with his counterparts for two days before traveling to alliance's eastern flank.

Biden also said his administration is still open to high-level diplomacy should Russian President Vladimir Putin elect to de-escalate tensions.

We have not yet verified the Russian military units are returning to their home bases. Indeed, our analysts indicate that they remain very much in a threatening position.
Joe Biden
President of the United States

"We're not seeking direct confrontation with Russia. Though I've been clear that if Russia targets Americans in Ukraine, we will respond forcefully," Biden said.

"If Russia attacks the United States or allies through asymmetric means, like disruptive cyberattacks against our companies or critical infrastructure. We're also prepared to respond," he added.

Biden reiterated several other costs the U.S. would impose on Russia in the event that it moved on Ukraine, including his pledge to halt a major new Russian-German gas pipeline.

The Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline between Russia and Germany was finished in September of last year, but it has yet to transport any actual gas. German officials have been strategically vague about the fate of Nord Stream 2 in the event of an invasion, but Biden has been unequivocal.

For months, the U.S. and its Western allies have watched a steady buildup of Kremlin forces along Ukraine's border with Russia and Belarus. The increased military presence mimics Russia's playbook ahead of its 2014 illegal annexation of Crimea, a peninsula on the Black Sea, which sparked international uproar and triggered sanctions against Moscow.

VIDEO3:1503:15
Russia says it's pulled back some troops from Ukraine's border

The Kremlin has denied that the extraordinary deployment of Russian troops outfitted with advanced military equipment along Ukraine's borders are preparing for an invasion. Earlier on Tuesday, Russia's Ministry of Defense said that some of its forces previously deployed to its borders are in the process of leaving. The news prompted the stock market to jump and snap a three-day losing streak.

But Biden and his ambassador to NATO downplayed the Kremlin's claim on Tuesday.

"We have not yet verified the Russian military units are returning to their home bases. Indeed, our analysts indicate that they remain very much in a threatening position," Biden said, adding that there are more than 150,000 troops on the border.

Similarly, Ambassador Julianne Smith told reporters on a call Tuesday that the U.S. and its allies were working to verify Moscow's claims.

"In late December, there were some similar claims that came out of Moscow that they were de-escalating and in fact, facts on the ground did not support that claim," Smith said. "This is something that we'll have to look at closely and verify in the days ahead," she added.

Biden spoke to Putin on Saturday from Camp David, and warned his Russian counterpart that if there is a further invasion of Ukraine, Washington and its allies will impose "swift and severe costs."

Biden said that while the U.S. remains prepared to engage in diplomacy, "we are equally prepared for other scenarios."

The president's call with Putin, which lasted about an hour, was followed up on Sunday with a separate phone call to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. The two leaders also spoke for an hour.

Over the weekend, Biden's national security advisor, Jake Sullivan, gave a grim description of what a Russian invasion of Ukraine might look like and urged Americans to depart the country immediately.

"If there is a military invasion of Ukraine by Russia, it's likely to begin with a significant barrage of missiles and bomb attacks," Sullivan said Sunday.

Service members of the Ukrainian Armed Forces drive tanks during tactical drills at a training ground in the Kherson region, Ukraine, in this handout picture released February 7, 2022.
Ukrainian Armed Forces Press Service | via Reuters

"It would then be followed by an onslaught of a ground force moving across the Ukrainian frontier," he said, adding that there would be a substantial number of civilians caught in the crossfire.

Sullivan said that in the past 10 days the Kremlin has accelerated its extraordinary military buildup. Russia's current force posture in the region could "launch a military action very, very rapidly," he said.

On Monday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken closed the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv and directed diplomatic staff to relocate to the western city of Lviv.

The closure of the embassy compound in Kyiv follows repeated warnings for U.S. citizens to immediately leave Ukraine.

A senior State Department official told reporters on a call Saturday that it was "past time for private citizens to leave Ukraine."

"American citizens should not expect that the U.S. military is going to rescue them in Ukraine at the last minute. That's not going to be happening in this scenario. And that's why it is past time for them to leave Ukraine," the official said, adding "there are real limits to what we are able to do in a war zone."

Over the weekend, Austin ordered U.S. troops who deployed to Ukraine last year to leave the country and reposition elsewhere in Europe. In November, 160 members of the Florida National Guard, assigned to the 53rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team, deployed to Ukraine to train with local forces.

"This repositioning does not signify a change in our determination to support Ukraine's Armed Forces, but will provide flexibility in assuring allies and deterring aggression," Pentagon spokesman John Kirby wrote in a statement Saturday announcing the new marching orders.

VIDEO9:1809:18
Can harsh U.S. economic sanctions deter Russia from invading Ukraine?

 — CNBC's Christina Wilkie contributed reporting from Washington.