What’s in a word? The Biden administration may be finding out.
After repeatedly claiming in recent days that a Russian invasion of Ukraine was “imminent,” the White House has stopped using the word because it sent the wrong message, press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters Wednesday.
“I used that [word] once, I think others have used that once and then we stopped using it because I think it sent a message that we weren’t intending to send, which was that we knew [Russian] President [Vladimir] Putin had made a decision [about invading],” Psaki said during her regular briefing.
“I would say the vast majority of times I’ve talked about it and said he could invade at any time, that’s true,” she added. “We still don’t know that he’s made a decision.”
The press secretary had been asked about a National Public Radio interview Tuesday in which US Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield said: “I would not say that we are arguing that it’s imminent, because we are still pursuing a diplomatic solution to give the Russians an off-ramp.
“Our hope is that this will work, and that Putin will understand that war and confrontation is not the path that he wants to follow, but he wants to take a path of diplomacy,” the envoy added.
When pressed about whether the change in language came from an official administration guideline, Psaki did not answer directly, saying she hasn’t used the word “in over a week.”
With the West fearing an invasion as an estimated 100,000 Russian forces mass on the border with Ukraine, the administration has repeatedly used the word “imminent” to describe a possible attack.
On Jan. 25, two days after the families of US personnel were ordered out of Ukraine, Psaki told reporters at the White House: “I think when we said it was imminent, it remains imminent.”
When Psaki was asked later in the briefing to confirm that was the administration’s belief, she answered: “Correct.”
Two days later, on Jan. 27, State Department spokesman Ned Price was asked: “Do you concede that the use of words like ‘imminent’ above and beyond everything that you’ve just described may not be helpful and may cause panic, and seems to be causing panic in Ukraine in particular?”
“I do not think us voicing our concerns regarding what Moscow may well have in store is bringing us any closer to conflicts,” Price answered. “The only thing that is bringing us closer to conflict are moves in the measures that we have seen from the Russian Federation.”
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby used similar language that same day.
“That fact that [an invasion] is possible, that it’s imminent, doesn’t mean that we just woke up to the fact that they had been building forces,” Kirby told reporters. “We’ve been talking about this now for a couple of months, what we’ve been seeing on the ground. And there have been lots of conversations with us and our NATO allies as well as our – our Ukrainian counterparts … it’s not like any of this came as some sort of shock.”
The following day, Ukraine scolded the US and other Western nations, accusing them of creating a “panic.”
“Do we have tanks on the streets?” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky asked reporters during a news conference. “No. When you read media, you get the image that we have troops in the city, people fleeing … That’s not the case.”
“I’m the president of Ukraine and I’m based here and I think I know the details better here,” he said at one point.
Earlier Wednesday, the Pentagon announced it would be deploying 3,000 troops to Eastern Europe to bolster NATO’s defense posture as a potential Russian invasion looms.
When pressed on whether the deployment could be used by Putin as a “pretext to act against Ukraine,” Psaki insisted that Russia is the sole aggressor in Eastern Europe.
“I think what’s important to be very clear about here is that there is one aggressor here — that aggressor is Russia. They are the ones who have gathered tens of thousands of troops on the border. They are the ones who are threatening to invade a sovereign country,” she said.
“NATO is a defensive alliance. The steps and actions we are taking are to provide reassurance and readiness to our partners in the region. If Putin — President Putin and the Russians decided to de-escalate, that would be a welcome step.”