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President Joe Biden on Wednesday acknowledged it was a ‘real threat’ that Vladimir Putin might use chemical weapons in the Ukraine, a topic of concern for world leaders ahead of their NATO summit.
‘I think it’s a real threat,’ Biden told reporters ahead of his departure for Brussels.
Officials have been concerned that Putin will use more aggressive tactics and disruptive weapons as his invasion of the Ukraine reaches a stalemate.
The situation in the Ukraine is the main topic at Thursday’s NATO meeting, where Biden will rally western allies and announce a new round of financial sanctions against Putin‘s government.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky will take part of the special summit, which was pulled together in a week, via video link as the Russian invasion of his country enters its fourth week.
On the trip, Biden intends to shore up the NATO alliance as the war in the Ukraine threatens to settle in for the long haul. He’ll put pressure on the allies to continue financial sanctions, announce additional humanitarian assistance and could reveal a plan to increase U.S. boots on the ground in Eastern Europe.
‘Our goal is to weaken Russia’s hand, tactically, and strategically, and to strengthen Ukraine’s hand on the battlefield and at the negotiating table. We know this conflict has to be resolved diplomatically if we’re going to save lives,’ State Department spokesman Ned Price told CNN Wednesday morning of the trip.
He will also travel to Poland to meet with U.S. troops stationed there, review the situation with Ukraine refugees and meet with Polish President Andrzej Duda.
The trip will be heavy on symbolism, with the pictures showing a united front among the allies and a compassionate Biden meeting the displaced as Vladimir Putin continues to pound away at the Ukraine.
‘There will be hard days ahead in Ukraine — hardest for the Ukrainian troops on the frontlines and the civilians under Russian bombardment. This war will not end easily or rapidly,’ National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said on Monday in previewing the trip.
‘For the past few months, the West has been united. The President is traveling to Europe to ensure we stay united, to cement our collective resolve, to send a powerful message that we are prepared and committed to this for as long as it takes,’ he added.
Biden’s trip comes as the allies are pushing the boundries of what they can do to stop Putin.
Europe, which still needs Russian oil, is reaching the limits of the financial sanctions it can implement. And the West has also committed as much military assistance as it can – short of putting boots on the ground in the Ukraine.
President Joe Biden acknowledged it was a ‘real threat’ that Vladimir Putin might use chemical weapons in the Ukraine
President Biden is headed to Brussels for meetings with NATO, the European Union and G7
Biden’s trip comes as the allies are pushing the boundries of what they can do to stop Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky will speak to NATO meeting via video link
President Biden’s schedule for his European trip
THURSDAY: President Biden is in Brussels for the NATO summit, a Group of 7 meeting and a session with heads of state from the European Union.
FRIDAY: Biden heads to Poland
SATURDAY: Biden is in Poland where he will discuss the Ukrainian refugee situation and meet with President Andrzej Duda. He leaves for Washington D.C. in the evening.
Biden will start his trip Thursday in Brussels, where he attend emergency summit meetings of NATO, the European Union and the G7.
Poland said last week that it would formally submit a proposal for the peacekeeping mission in Ukraine at the Thursday summit.
‘I hope they understand what they are talking about,’ Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told staff and students at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations on Wednesday.
‘This will be the direct clash between the Russian and NATO armed forces that everyone has not only tried to avoid but said should not take place in principle.’
The Biden administration has appeared to rule that Poland’s proposal, saying they are committed to not putting U.S. troops on the ground in the Ukraine.
Meanwhile, a slew of new economic sanctions will be aimed at trying to deter Putin.
‘It cannot be business as usual for Russia,’ Sullivan said on Monday.
The president will announce the U.S. will target 400 people, officials told the Wall Street Journal, including 328 Russian lawmakers in the Duma and other elites.
The United States has already announced a slew of sanctions against Putin himself, his inner circle, the Russian oligarchs and Russian businesses.
And though the Russian currency, the ruble, dropped down to being worth next to nothing and the nation was last week at risk of defaulting on its debt, sanctions have done little to change the Russian leader’s posture.
This week, the ruble stabilized and Russia was able to make interest payments on $117 million due on two bonds denominated in U.S. dollars. And while about half of Russia’s $640 billion in foreign reserves is frozen, it has been able to offset that by continued fuel sales to Europe amid a price spike in the cost of oil and gas.
Biden also announced earlier this month the U.S. would ban imports of Russian oil, natural gas and coal, though America doesn’t use much of those products.
The E.U. unveiled a plan to cut Russian gas imports by approximately two-thirds this year, but it’s unclear how quickly member nations will be able to accomplish that given their heavy dependence on Russian oil.
Sullivan said the U.S. would make new announcements about efforts to help European countries wean themselves off Russian energy.
Biden also may announce more U.S. troops wil be deployed to NATO countries in Eastern Europe to help ease worries among those nations that Putin’s invasion could spread, NBC News reported.
Sullivan previewed the announcement on Monday when he said Biden would announce the ‘next phase’ of military assistance to Ukraine during his trip.
‘He will work with Allies on longer-term adjustments to NATO force posture on the eastern flank,’ Sullivan said.
President Biden will work to keep allies in lock step during his trip to Europe
The fighting in the Ukraine is entering its fourth week – above a marke in Kharkiv that was destroyed by Russian missiles
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has warned sending a peace keeping mission to Ukraine could trigger ‘direct clashes’ between Russia and NATO
Russia’s offensive has now stalled on all fronts amid reports that Ukraine has started launching counter-attacks to push Putin’s forces back
Biden recently reviewed options for permanent increases in the number of U.S. troops in Eastern Europe, and Poland is among the possible locations, NBC News noted.
‘At the summit,’ the an administration official said, ‘we expect NATO leaders to review the alliance’s current deterrent and defensive force posture, especially in light of the deteriorated security environment caused by Russia’s unprovoked and unjustified further invasion of Ukraine.’
One fear among leaders to be addressed is Putin’s next move in the Ukraine.
With the invasion at a stalement, there is concern the Russian president will step up his game, possibly using chemical or even a small nuclear weapon. The Biden administration is also warning that cyber attacks could come.
‘Now Putin’s back is against the wall. He wasn’t anticipating the extent or the strength of our unity. And the more his back is against the wall, the greater the severity of the tactics he may employ,’ Biden told business leaders in Washington on Monday.
NATO leaders could announce the addition of a new chemical and biological weapons unit to the NATO Response Force to counter Russia.
American officials have expressed concern that Putin could use chemical weapons after the Russian Defense Ministry said Ukraine could make such a move, in what U.S. officials say could be a false flag operation to justify any moves by Moscow.
Russia has wielded chemical weapons in the past.
Moscow used the deadly Novichok poison in 2018 an attempt to assassinate a defector living in Salisbury, England. And it is suspected of using a similar poison against opposition leader Alexei Navalny in 2020.
Russia also offered diplomatic cover to Syrian use of chemical agents. It accused the West of being behind the 2017 attack on Khan Shaykhun with Sarin or similar nerve agent.
The invasion has not gone well for Russia.
Ukrainian forces remain in control of all major cities across the country except for the regional capital of Kherson, where counter-attacks are now underway in an effort to recapture it.
Counter-attacks are also underway to the west of the capital Kyiv, in Voznesensk in the south, and around Izyum in the north-east.
Ukraine’s generals believe Russian forces only have enough supplies to last three more days in the field, while Western experts have said Putin’s men will soon need to switch on to the defensive as their stockpiles run low.
The Kremlin has refused to rule out using nuclear weapons.
Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s spokesman, was asked three times on CNN whether he could definitively rule out the possibility of the Russian leader pushing the button – and three times refused to give a straight answer.
Instead, Peskov said only that Russian doctrine allows Putin to use nukes see off ‘existential threats’ – raising fears he could justify using the weapons over Ukraine, having previously said the country poses a direct threat to the security of Russia.
John Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman, slammed Peskov’s rhetoric as ‘dangerous’ saying it is ‘not the way a responsible nuclear power should act’.
Kirby added that the US is keeping Russia’s nuclear arsenal – believed to be the world’s largest at 6,500 warheads – under constant surveillance and has not yet seen any indication that it is preparing to use the weapons.
Biden will also talk to E.U. leaders about China’s relationship with Russia. Biden spoke to Chinese leader Xi Jinping last week amid concerns Beijing could back the invasion.
E.U. leaders have a summit with Xi on April 1.
‘This will be an opportunity — Thursday — for the United States and our European partners to coordinate closely on what our message is,’ Sullivan said.
Thursday’s meetings will also reveal what Biden and the allies won’t do.
The U.S. has already ruled out Zelensky’s request for a no-fly zone over the Ukraine, arguing it could escalate the conflict into World War III.
Leaders may also discuss whether or not to push Russia out of the G20. Putin is expected to attend November’s gathering of the world leaders and there are some countries in the 20-nation alliance that would likely opposing removing Russia.
On Friday, Biden heads to Poland, where he will discuss the situation with Ukrainian refugees. Poland has taken in nearly 2 million of them.
‘He will announce further American contributions to a coordinated humanitarian response to ease the suffering of civilians inside Ukraine and to respond to the growing flow of refugees,’ Sullivan said.
While in Poland, he will hold an event related to refugees, which could include meeting with some of the Ukrainians who had fled their country but the details are still being worked out, The Washington Post reported.
People wait at Przemysl train station before continuing their journey back into war-torn Ukraine in Przemysl, Poland. Nearly two-thirds of the more than 3 million people to have fled Ukraine since Russia’s invasion last month have come to Poland, which shares a 310-mile border with its eastern neighbor
Firefighters put out fire after Russians shelled a warehouse in Mykolaiv, Ukraine
A view of a shopping mall that was destroyed by a missile in Kyiv
Biden will also visit with American troops stationed in Poland as part of NATO forces and meet with President Duda.
What’s not on the table during this trip is a Biden stop in the Ukraine.
‘Any president of the United States traveling into a war zone requires not only security considerations but also an enormous amount of resources on the ground, which is always a factor for us as we make considerations,’ press secretary Jen Psaki said this week. ‘It was a decision made about what would be most effective on the trip.’