The White House says it will no longer describe a potential Russian invasion of Ukraine as “imminent,” suggesting the word sent an unintended message when officials used it last week.
“I used that once. I think others have used that once. And then we stopped using it because I think it sent a message that we weren’t intending to send, which was that we knew (Russian) President (Vladimir) Putin had made a decision,” press secretary Jen Psaki said during a briefing Wednesday.
“I would say the vast majority of times I’ve talked about it, we said he could invade at any time,” she went on. “That’s true. We still don’t know that he’s made a decision.”
The decision to discontinue the use of “imminent” came after a rift emerged between US and Ukrainian officials over how best to describe the threat from Russia. While Biden and his senior officials have warned Putin could order troops over the border at any moment, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has downplayed the prospects of imminent war.
The discrepancy caused some frustrations to break into the open. Last week, Psaki’s description of an attack as “imminent” drew anger in Kyiv. Ukrainian officials, including Zelensky, disagreed, and said the descriptions could cause panic and economic turmoil.
“There is a feeling abroad that there is war here. That’s not the case,” Zelensky said during a news conference last Friday.
Biden himself has predicted Putin will ultimately decide to launch an invasion, though has acknowledged the uncertainty surrounding the situation and said even Putin’s top aides are likely in the dark about the Russian President’s intentions.
Ukrainian officials said privately it would be more productive for the United States to apply sanctions before a Russian attack than to warn of impending war.
“Kyiv would find more value in taking active deterrent measures such as immediate sanctions against Nord Stream than the persistent verbal warnings predicting imminent war for the last couple months that provide no deterrent, and are actually unintentionally negatively impacting the Ukrainian economy,” an adviser to Zelensky said, referring to the Russia-Germany gas pipeline Nord Stream 2.
On Wednesday, Psaki said she’d only used the word “imminent” once, but wouldn’t going forward.
Other American officials have also avoided the term in recent days. Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the US ambassador to the United Nations, said in an interview Tuesday that a Russian invasion of Ukraine isn’t “imminent” because the US is still seeking to provide Russia with a diplomatic off-ramp.
“No, I would not say that we are arguing that it’s imminent because we’re still pursuing a diplomatic solution to give the Russians an off-ramp. Our hope is that this will work and that Putin will understand that war and confrontation is not the path that he wants to follow, but he wants to take a path at diplomacy,” she told NPR.
Still, the shift in language did not suggest new optimism that Russia was preparing to pull back the 100,000 troops it has amassed at Ukraine’s border. While Putin said during his own news conference Tuesday he was open to continuing talks, there was little in his remarks to indicate a plan to stand down.
Biden, in turn, has deployed 3,000 US troops to Eastern Europe in a bid to reassure NATO allies of the continued American commitment to their security.
It wasn’t clear when or where US and Russian officials would resume negotiations over each sides’ security concerns, even as both Washington and Moscow indicate a preference for a diplomatic solution.
Officials said Biden’s decision to deploy troops to Europe, made following a lengthy briefing from top Pentagon officials on Tuesday, was not sparked by a particular event over the past days.
Instead, they said it was the result of continued consultations with European allies about security needs in the region. And they made explicit the troops would not be sent into Ukraine itself to defend the country from Russian aggression.
Yet even sending troops to countries not under current threat from Russia will draw the ire of Putin, who has made known his concerns about NATO and US forces being deployed in former Soviet states.
On Wednesday, after the Pentagon announced the new deployments to Poland, Romania and Germany, the White House downplayed the suggestion the move could be viewed as escalating tensions.
“What’s important to be very clear about here is there’s one aggressor here. That aggressor is Russia,” Psaki said.