US President Joe Biden on Wednesday predicted that Russian President Vladimir Putin would invade Ukraine to some extent, saying that a full-scale invasion would trigger a massive response that would be costly for Russia and its economy, including a possible loss of access to the US dollar.
“My guess is he will move in,” Mr Biden told a news conference. “He has to do something.”
The Kremlin has massed about 100,000 troops near Ukraine's borders, a build-up that the West says is preparation for a war to prevent Ukraine from ever joining Nato. Russia denies planning an invasion.
The response to any Russian invasion, he suggested, would depend on the scale of Moscow's actions and whether US allies squabbled over how to react.
Remarkably, he also appeared to suggest that a “minor incursion” would be met with a lesser US response.
“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 what to not do, et cetera,” Mr Biden said.
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki moved quickly to clean up the president's statement.
"President Biden has been clear with the Russian president: 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," she said after the press conference.
Mr Biden said a third summit with Mr Putin “is still a possibility” after the two leaders met twice last year. He said he was concerned that a Ukraine conflict could have broader implications and “could get out of hand".
Speaking to reporters about the crisis threatening to engulf his presidency, Mr Biden said he believed Mr Putin would test western leaders.
“But if they actually do what they're capable of doing … it is going to be a disaster for Russia if they further invade Ukraine," he said.
He reiterated warnings that Russia would pay a stiff price for an invasion, including a heavy human toll and deep harm to its economy, Mr Biden said. He added, however, that Russian forces would probably defeat the weaker Ukrainian military over time.
The Kremlin said tension around Ukraine was increasing and it still awaited a written US response to its sweeping demands for security guarantees from the West, including a halt to further Nato expansion and a withdrawal of alliance forces from Central and Eastern European nations that joined it after 1997.
The pessimistic statements highlighted the US-Russian gulf before talks between Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Friday in Geneva.
Wednesday's nearly two-hour press conference came on the eve of the first anniversary of Mr Biden taking office.
He took several questions highlighting the many challenges he faces, including a stalled legislative agenda, soaring inflation and infighting in his own Democratic Party. One reporter from a conservative publication even questioned him about his mental capacity.
Mr Biden insisted the US is in a better place today than it was a year ago.
"It's been a year of challenges," Mr Biden said, adding that he "didn't anticipate" the level of obstruction to his domestic agenda he has encountered from Republicans in Congress.
"But it has also been a year of enormous progress ... We went from two million people being vaccinated at the moment I was sworn in to 210 million Americans being fully vaccinated today. We created six million new jobs -- more jobs in one year than any time before."
While Mr Biden was able early on to pass the American Rescue Plan, a $1.9 trillion pandemic-relief package, his wins have been few and far between since then.
His ambitious legislative agenda has been held hostage by Democratic senators Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona.
Mr Biden acknowledged his $1.75tn Build Back Better bill would likely have to be broken up into smaller pieces.
The president also defended his handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. He had promised to take a science-first approach, but a year after taking office, the country continues to struggle with the virus.
More than 850,000 Americans have died from Covid-19 and the country is in the midst of yet another wave caused by the Omicron variant.
“It will get better,” said Mr Biden. “We're moving towards a time when Covid-19 won't disrupt our daily lives.”