President Joe Biden raised alarm bells in Ukraine Wednesday after he appeared to downplay a potential "minor incursion" by Russia in the coming days or weeks, sowing doubts as to whether the U.S. and NATO allies will respond with force if Russia were to invade the neighboring country.
"I think what you're going to see is that Russia will be held accountable if it invades, and it depends on what it does, it's one thing if it's a minor incursion and we end up having to fight about what to do and not do, et cetera," Biden told reporters during a long, rambling East Room news conference.
"But if they actually do what they're capable of doing with the forces amassed on the border, it is going to be a disaster for Russia if they further invade Ukraine," he added, though his passive words didn't inspire confidence.
Later in the news conference, the president strangely predicted that Russian President Vladimir Putin "will move in" because "he has to do something."
Russia has amassed more than 100,000 troops on its border with Ukraine over the last several weeks but has repeatedly denied that it is planning to invade.
What was the reaction in Ukraine?
In response to Biden's remarks Wednesday, CNN senior intelligence correspondent Matthew Chance read directly from his prepared notes to relay that one Ukrainian official was "shocked that President Biden would give a green light to Vladimir Putin in this way."
That official reportedly added, “It gives the green light to Putin to enter Ukraine at his pleasure," Chance told network anchor Jake Tapper.
According to Chance, another Ukrainian official remarked that Kyiv, referring to Ukraine's government, "is stunned at what President Biden had to say."
The two anonymous officials were soon joined in their rebuke of Biden by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and Ukraine’s foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba.
In a tweet Thursday morning, Zelensky said, "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. I say this as the President of a great power."
USA Today called the statement a "remarkable retort from a close U.S. ally that has received millions of dollars in military assistance."
Kuleba similarly admonished Biden in an interview with the Wall Street Journal on Thursday, arguing that the president's half-hearted warning leaves open a window for Putin.
“Speaking of minor and full incursions or full invasion, you cannot be half-aggressive. You’re either aggressive or you’re not aggressive,” Kuleba said. “We should not give Putin the slightest chance to play with quasi-aggression or small incursion operations. This aggression was there since 2014. This is the fact.”
The White House quickly tried to clean up the mess in a subsequent clarification of Biden's remarks.
"If any Russian military forces move across the Ukrainian border, that's a renewed invasion, and it will be met with a swift, severe, and united response from the United States and our allies," White House press secretary Jen Psaki said in a statement Wednesday evening.