By Sabine Siebold and Pavel Polityuk
BERLIN/KYIV (Reuters)—Western countries sought to project unity over Ukraine on Thursday, after U.S. President Joe Biden suggested allies were split over how to react to any "minor incursion" from Russia, prompting Kyiv's leader to plead that there was no such thing.
"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," Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy tweeted in English and Ukrainian, in a clear reference to Biden's remarks.
"I say this as the president of a great power."
Russia has massed tens of thousands of troops on its borders with Ukraine, and Western states fear Moscow is planning a new assault on a country it invaded in 2014. Russia denies it is planning an attack, but says it could take unspecified military action if a list of demands are not met, including a promise from NATO never to admit Kyiv as a member.
At a news conference on Wednesday, Biden said he expected Russian President Vladimir Putin to launch some kind of action, and appeared to suggest Washington and its allies might disagree over the response if Moscow stopped short of a major invasion.
"My guess is he will move in," Biden said. "He has to do something."
"Russia will be held accountable if it invades – and it depends on what it does," Biden said. "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," Biden said, adding that an invasion would be a "disaster" for Russia.
Shortly after Biden's news conference ended, the White House rowed back from any suggestion that a smaller-scale Russian military incursion would meet a weaker U.S. response.
"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," said White House press secretary Jen Psaki.
Biden's remarks sent Western leaders into damage control, determined to demonstrate that they remain united.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken met ministers from Britain, France and Germany in Berlin on Thursday.
"No matter which path Russia chooses, it will find the United States, Germany, and our allies, united," he said at a press conference with German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock.
"We urgently demand that Russia takes steps towards deescalation. Any further aggressive behaviour or aggression would result in serious consequences," Baerbock told the news conference.
Other allies made similar remarks, some clearly with Biden's comments in mind. A new attack would be met "with massive economic and financial sanctions. The transatlantic community stands firm in this," said European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, who heads the EU executive.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said: "Be in no doubt that if Russia were to make any kind of incursion into Ukraine, or on any scale, whatever, I think that that would be a disaster, not just for Ukraine, but for Russia."
Moscow, for its part, said U.S. threats of sanctions were not calming the situation.
‘SLIP OF HIS TONGUE'
With Western countries having long emphasised their united position in public, some officials privately expressed frustration at Biden's remarks, although they described them as a gaffe, unlikely to alter Moscow's calculations.
"It was not helpful, in fact it was a gift to Putin, but we should not read too much into it. Biden has not given Moscow the green light for an attack on Ukraine. It was a slip of his tongue, and the official Western position will prevail," said one Western security source.
Another said: "I think the Russians will know how to rank Biden’s remarks, they will classify it as what it was – a gaffe."
Moscow presented the West with a list of security demands at talks last week that produced no breakthrough.
Western countries have imposed repeated rounds of economic sanctions since Russian troops seized and annexed Ukraine's Crimea peninsula in 2014. But such moves have had scant impact on Russian policy, with Moscow, Europe's main energy supplier, calculating that the West would stop short of steps serious enough to interfere with gas exports.
U.S. and European officials say there are still strong financial measures that have not been tried. Germany has signalled that it could halt Nord Stream 2, a new gas pipeline from Russia that skirts Ukraine, if Moscow invades.
"Gas is not flowing through Nord Stream 2 yet, which means the pipeline is leverage for Germany, the United States and our allies, not Russia," Blinken said at Thursday's news conference.
(Reporting by Simon Lewis, Sabine Siebold, Pavel Polityuk, Benoit Van Overstraeten, Marine Strauss and Dmitry AntonovWriting by Peter GraffEditing by Timothy Heritage and Frances Kerry)