President Joe Biden said he believes Vladimir Putin does not want full blown war in Ukraine, and would pay a “dear price” if he moves forward with a military incursion.
Mr Biden, speaking at a news conference to mark his one-year anniversary in office, also said he believes that Russia is preparing to take action on Ukraine, though he does not think Mr Putin has made a final decision.
He suggested that he would limit Russia’s access to the international banking system if it did further invade Ukraine.
“I’m not so sure that he is certain what is he going to do,” Mr Biden said. He added, “My guess is he will move in.”
Mr Biden’s comments came hours after US Secretary of State Antony Blinken during a visit to Kyiv accused Russia of planning to reinforce the more than 100,000 troops it has deployed along the Ukrainian border and suggested that number could double “on relatively short order.”
Mr Blinken did not elaborate, but Russia has sent an unspecified number of troops from the country’s far east to its ally Belarus, which also shares a border with Ukraine, for major war games next month.
The US president said he believes the decision will “solely” be Mr Putin’s and suggested he was not fully confident that Russian officials with whom top White House advisers have been negotiating are fully informed about Mr Putin’s thinking.
“There’s a question of whether the people they’re talking to know what he’s going to do,” Mr Biden said.
Mr Biden also suggested a “minor incursion” would elicit a lesser response than a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, saying “it’s very important that we keep everyone in Nato on the same page.”
Mr Biden said of Mr Putin, “He is trying to find his place in the world between China and the West.”
Ukraine, meanwhile, said it was prepared for the worst and would survive whatever difficulties come its way. The president urged the country not to panic.
Mr Blinken’s visit to the Ukrainian capital came two days before he is to meet in Geneva with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. That follows a series of inconclusive talks last week that failed to ease rising tensions.
Russian military activity has been increasing in recent weeks, but the US has not concluded whether Mr Putin plans to invade or whether the show of force is intended to squeeze the security concessions without an actual conflict.
Russia in 2014 seized the Crimean Peninsula after the ouster of Ukraine’s Moscow-friendly leader and also threw its weight behind a separatist insurgency in eastern Ukraine.
More than 14,000 people have been killed in nearly eight years of fighting between the Russia-backed rebels and Ukrainian forces in the country’s industrial heartland, called Donbas.