President Joe Biden emerged from a series of emergency summits in Brussels touting unity in the Western response to Russia as allies worked behind the scenes to formulate their plans for the next phase of the war in Ukraine.
Biden said he supported ejecting Russia from another summit, the Group of 20, which is scheduled to convene in November, though other members of that grouping would have to sign on. And he issued a vague warning that the United States would respond to potential chemical weapons use on the battlefield.
But he maintained his view that direct US military intervention in Ukraine would result in catastrophe and defended a sanctions regime that so far has not stopped Russian President Vladimir Putin from intensifying his assault.
“Putin was banking on NATO being split,” Biden said in a news conference Thursday afternoon.
“NATO has never, never been more united than it is today. Putin is getting exactly the opposite of what he intended to have as a consequence of going into Ukraine.”
During the critical day of meetings, Biden announced new punishment directed at members of Russia’s parliament and unveiled a plan to accept as many as 100,000 refugees fleeing the violence in Ukraine, steps intended to show American resolve in confronting the crisis.
A discussion of NATO’s force posture along its eastern edge was also part of the last-minute diplomatic burst. And leaders conferred on what to do if Russia deploys a chemical, biological or even nuclear weapon, a prospect causing increasing concern as the war reaches a stalemate.
Biden said the use of chemical weapons in Ukraine would spark an American response, though declined to reveal what current intelligence says about the likelihood of such an attack.
“The nature of the response would depend on the nature of the use,” Biden said.
As the summit got underway Thursday morning, leaders heard a call for more help from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who addressed the gathering virtually. He stopped short of issuing his usual request for a no-fly zone. But he did say Ukraine needs fighter jets, tanks and better air defenses.
“You can give us 1% of all your planes. One percent of all your tanks. One percent,” he said in a virtual address to the summit.
Following Zelensky’s remarks, a senior US official said the US is still opposed to providing fighter jets to Ukraine. Previously, US officials said providing such jets to Ukraine could be viewed by Putin as an escalatory step.
Biden insisted that ruling out military action Ukraine had not emboldened Putin, and denied he’d been too quick to take such action off the table.
“No and no,” Biden said.
Still, he said other steps to isolate Russia were in play, including removed from the G20, though he acknowledged it would be a decision taken by the entire bloc.
“That was raised today, and I raised the possibility that, if that can’t be done – if Indonesia and others do not agree – then we should, in my view, ask to have both Ukraine be able to attend the meetings as well,” he said. G20 leaders are next scheduled to meet in early November in Indonesia.
The announcements and displays of unity Thursday came as US officials say the war in Ukraine has reached a stalemate, leading to fears of what steps Putin may take to unblock his stalled campaign or force Ukraine to make concessions at the negotiating table.
Asked during Thursday’s news conference whether Zelensky needs to cede any territory in order gain a ceasefire with Russia, Biden said it was up to the Ukrainians to decide.
“That is a total judgment based on Ukraine. Nothing about Ukraine without Ukraine. I don’t believe that they’re going to have to do that, but that’s a judgment,” Biden said.
A quickly arranged “sober and resolute” meeting of allies
Representatives from the White House and European governments spent the days leading up to the summit in intensive conversations finalizing steps to unveil following the talks.
Leaders including Biden arrived to NATO headquarters Thursday morning intent on demonstrating unity amid Russia’s aggression. They posed for a brief family photo before entering the lengthy closed-door session. The mood inside the meeting was “sober, resolute and incredibly united,” one senior US administration official said.
“We gather at a critical time for our security,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said as the meeting convened. “We are determined to continue to impose costs on Russia to bring about an end to this brutal war.”
He said leaders would discuss ways to “strengthen our defenses now and for the years to come.”
What they won’t do, however, is what Zelensky has repeatedly asked: Enforce a no-fly zone over Ukraine. US and NATO officials have repeatedly said that such a move would risk provoking Putin and sparking a wider war with Russia. Western allies have also found it difficult to take more aggressive steps, such as providing Russian-made fighter jets to Ukraine or deciding to cut themselves off from Russian energy supplies, which could potentially cripple Russia’s economy.
The crisis sessions of NATO, the European Council and the G7 were arranged last-minute, leaving little time for the normal back-and-forth between governments that precedes such events. Biden determined earlier this month that an in-person gathering of a newly united Western alliance would signal resolve to Putin.
Whether Putin views it that way – or whether cracks are exposed among the allies on sanctions and use of military force – remains to be seen.
Biden hoped to set a tone on sanctions by slapping restrictions on 300 members of the Russian Duma, the lower body of Parliament, and over 40 Russian defense companies.
Biden also announced the US will accept up to 100,000 refugees fleeing the war in Ukraine, a major step toward easing a brewing humanitarian crisis in Europe. A senior administration official said a “full range of legal pathways” would be utilized to welcome the refugees.
Leaders from Poland in particular – where Biden will visit Friday – have called on the United States to expedite processing of refugees with family in the United States. More than 3 million people have fled fighting in Ukraine, the UN Refugee Agency says.
Biden said at his news conference he hopes to see Ukrainian refugees when he visits Poland this week, though he said he doubted witnessing the crisis first-hand would alter his approach.
“I plan on attempting to see those folks, as well as I hope I’m going to be able to see – guess I’m not supposed to say where I’m going, am I? I hope I get to see a lot of people,” Biden said.
New sanctions on politicians, defense companies and Putin associates
As Biden met with NATO and European allies, the US Treasury Department officially announced a slew of new sanctions against hundreds of members of the Russian State Duma, dozens of Russian defense companies and the CEO of Sberbank – Russia’s largest financial institution.
The new sanctions target 328 members of the 450-seat Russian State Duma, the lower level of the two-tiered Russian Parliament, cut off 48 Russian defense and materiel companies from Western technology and financing, as well as sanction Herman Gref – the head of Sberbank – who has worked with Putin since the 1990s when both men worked in the mayor’s office of St. Petersburg.
Long-time Putin associate Gennady Timchenko – his companies, family members and yacht – have also been sanctioned, as well as 17 board members of Russian financial institution Sovcombank, according to the White House.
“They personally gain from the Kremlin’s policies, and they should share in the pain,” Biden wrote on Twitter shortly after the US Treasury officially announced the new measures.
Treasury sanctioned 12 members of the Duma earlier this month for their calls to recognize the Russian-backed separatist regions in Eastern Ukraine, which precipitated Russia’s invasion. Thursday’s measures will also sanction the State Duma as an institution, according to the Treasury.
“The Russian State Duma continues to support Putin’s invasion, stifle the free flow of information, and infringe on the basic rights of the citizens of Russia. We call on those closest to Putin to cease and condemn this cold-blooded war,” Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said in a written statement.
One of the Duma members sanctioned was Maria Butina, a gun-rights enthusiast who studied at American University in the US and pleaded guilty in 2018 to conspiracy to act as an agent of a foreign government after she tried to infiltrate conservative political groups, including the National Rifle Association.
‘We must be intelligent” with sanctions against Russia, European allies warn
Biden has made clear his options to stop bloodshed in Ukraine are limited. He has drawn the line at sending US troops into direct conflict with Russians and indicated that Ukrainian requests for a NATO-enforced no-fly zone are a nonstarter.
European leaders have also made plain their own limitations in punishing Russia. While the US has imposed a ban on imports of Russian energy products, Europe remains far more dependent and has stopped short of cutting itself off completely.
“We do not have exactly the same situation in Europe and in the United States,” Charles Michel, the European Council president, acknowledged in an interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour on Wednesday. “The oil or the gas sector, for instance. We are much more dependent in Europe in comparison with the situation in the United States.”
“It’s why we must be intelligent,” Michel said. “The goal is to target Russia; the goal is to be painful against Russia. The goal is not to be painful for ourselves.”
Leaders who began arriving in Brussels late Wednesday hoped to focus on what they are willing to do rather than what they have ruled out. Biden was expected to announce more American help in weaning Europe from its dependence on Russian natural gas as part of his meetings this week, US officials said.
Sullivan said Biden would reveal details of the assistance on Friday. He added that US and European officials have held an “intense back-and-forth” about reducing dependence on Russian energy in the lead-up to the emergency summits.
“We are aiming at having a commitment for additional supplies for the next two winters,” Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, told lawmakers Wednesday.
Biden is due to meet von der Leyen on Friday morning before leaving for Poland.
More troops headed to eastern NATO countries
A day ahead of the extraordinary NATO summit, the alliance’s secretary general said he expected members to ramp up forces in countries closest to Russia.
“I expect leaders will agree to strengthen NATO’s posture in all domains, with major increases of forces in the eastern part of the alliance, on land, in the air and at sea. The first step is the deployment of four new NATO battle groups in Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania and Slovakia,” Jens Stoltenberg told reporters ahead of the summit.
Before Biden’s departure for Brussels, the Pentagon provided the White House with a series of options for potential additional US troops in Eastern Europe, according to a US official. The US already added troops in Poland and Romania as tensions between Russia and Ukraine escalated.
Sullivan said leaders on Thursday would ratify certain decisions on increasing NATO’s troop posture and would task their military and political officials with setting out a “longer-term game plan for what forces and capabilities are going to be required in those eastern flank countries.”
That plan will be agreed to at this summer’s NATO summit in Madrid, which had been previously announced. The new force posture will ensure that “we’ve got a long-term footprint that is matched to the new security reality that’s been created both by Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine and by what’s happening in Belarus,” Sullivan said.
Officials said possibilities for changes include more forward-deployed US troops, either permanently or on a rotating basis, which could lead to more and potentially larger field exercises; a more structured rotational presence within the NATO force structure; or the construction of a new traditional US military base.
This story has been updated with additional details Thursday.
CNN’s Kaitlan Collins and Natasha Bertrand contributed to this report.