Joe Biden has said there is “plenty of room for diplomacy” to resolve the Ukraine crisis, bolstering hopes that time is available for talks that would lead to Russia stepping back from an invasion of its neighbour.
Speaking from the White House on Tuesday, the US president said Russia had amassed about 150,000 troops along the Ukrainian border and remained “very much in a threatening position” — with an attack being “distinctly possible”.
But Biden shied away from the most strident warnings of an “immediate” assault described by some of his top officials in recent days.
“We should give diplomacy every chance to succeed,” Biden said. “And I believe there are real ways to address our respective security concerns.”
He said the US had not yet “verified” whether Russian military units were “returning to their home bases” as Moscow had announced earlier in the day, which had fuelled expectations that a detente was at hand.
Biden’s words suggested the US is ready to seize any chance that Russia was prepared to back away from a conflict over Ukraine.
“As long as there is hope in a diplomatic resolution to prevent the use of force and avoids the incredible human suffering that with follow, we will pursue it,” he said.
Biden’s speech came towards the end of another day of intensive international diplomacy aimed at heading off a potential invasion.
After three hours of talks with German chancellor Olaf Scholz, Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president, said Moscow was drawing down some troops from border areas to enable “dialogue” with the west while still keeping the threat of invasion hanging over its neighbour.
Putin said he was prepared to hold negotiations on intermediate nuclear missile forces and confidence-building measures with the west if the US and Nato agreed to discuss Moscow’s grievances with the transatlantic alliance — including its chief demand that it pledge never to admit Ukraine.
Speaking alongside Putin, Scholz said diplomatic options were “not by any means exhausted”.
“The fact that we’re now hearing that some troops are being withdrawn is a good sign, and we hope that more will follow,” the German chancellor said.
The US and Nato have suggested they are open to talks on arms control, missile deployment and transparency on military exercises. They have rejected Moscow’s call to ditch the alliance’s open-door policy on membership.
Both Scholz and Biden suggested that a an acceptable compromise to all countries with a stake in Europe’s security, including Ukraine, was still possible.
“There’s a fact and this fact is that all participants know that Ukraine’s Nato membership isn’t on the agenda. So everyone should take a step back and be clear that we can’t have a situation where there might be a military conflict over an issue that isn’t even on the agenda,” Scholz told German journalists after the meeting with Putin.
Biden said: “We will not sacrifice basic principles. Nations have a right to sovereignty and territorial integrity and the freedom to set their own course and choose with whom they will associate. But that still leaves plenty of room for diplomacy and for de-escalation as the best way forward for all parties, in our view”.
Although Biden emphasised diplomacy in his remarks, he said the US and allies would respond forcefully to any Russian attack through massive economic sanctions on key Russian financial institutions and sectors, and fresh export controls.
He noted in particular that America would react if US citizens in Ukraine were attacked or if Russia launched cyber attacks against US companies and critical infrastructure.
In addition, Moscow would face widespread international condemnation, he said. “The world will not forget that Russia chose needless death and destruction,” Biden said.
The US president, whose approval ratings have fallen sharply since last summer, also spoke to a domestic audience concerned by the lingering pandemic and high inflation, warning them that a conflict in Ukraine could have negative repercussions in America as well — particularly if it led to soaring energy prices.
“Defending democracy and liberty is never without cost,” he said.
As Biden delivered his comments, senior US lawmakers from both main political parties issued a joint statement “of solidarity and resolve to the people of Ukraine, and an equally clear warning to Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin”.
Even though Republicans and Democrats have been unable to agree on their own sanctions legislation against Russia in Congress, they said they would back the White House’s efforts in the event of an invasion.
“We are prepared to fully support the immediate imposition of strong, robust, and effective sanctions on Russia, as well as tough restrictions and controls on exports to Russia, and we will urge our allies and partners in Europe and around the world to join us,” the statement read.