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Biden speaks about Russia-Ukraine tensions

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Today President Biden gave Americans his latest update on the threat Russia poses to Ukraine. He says there are now more than 150,000 Russian troops surrounding the country. He wants talks between Moscow and the West to continue.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: We are ready with diplomacy to be engaged in diplomacy with Russia and our allies and partners to improve stability and security in Europe as a whole. And we are ready to respond decisively to Russian attack on Ukraine, which is still very much a possibility.

KELLY: If that's where things land, Biden says the West is ready to go with sanctions, and he warned those sanctions could also affect Americans. NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson was in the room for his remarks. She's here with us now.

Hey there.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Hi there.

KELLY: What stood out for you from his remarks today?

LIASSON: Well, what stood out is how he emphasized really in equal measure diplomacy and de-escalation but also the severe response that the United States was ready to enact if Russia should invade. He talked about various off-ramps, arms control agreements, transparency, certain things that he said that would meet Russia's security needs and the West's security needs in writing. But he also said that the U.S. and the - and its allies are united in its approach, united more than they've ever been. Here's what he said.

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BIDEN: The West is united and galvanized. Today our NATO allies and the alliance is as unified and determined as it has ever been. And the source of our unbreakable strands continues to be the power, resilience and universal appeal of our shared democratic values because this is about more than just Russia and Ukraine.

LIASSON: Yeah. He said this is really about basic principles - that nations have a right to sovereignty and territorial integrity and the freedom to decide who they're going to associate with or ally with. That's why, for the West, Russia's demand that NATO and the U.S. rule out the possibility that Ukraine can ever, ever in the - join NATO is really a non-starter.

But what was so interesting to me about this is how this whole episode has made NATO, at least for now, stronger and more united. Who would have thought that? Just a couple of years ago, we had a U.S. president who didn't seem like he believed in Article V - an attack on one is an attack on all - and talked repeatedly about NATO in a very negative way. So at least for the moment, the Western alliance is together.

KELLY: You're right. It's such an interesting reversal. Now, President Biden also today had a message directly. He spoke directly to people in Russia. Here's that part of his speech.

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BIDEN: To the citizens of Russia, you are not our enemy. And I do not believe you want a bloody, destructive war against Ukraine, a country and a people with whom you share such deep ties of family, history and culture.

KELLY: Mara, this was something we haven't heard before from President Biden. What do you make of it?

LIASSON: We haven't heard it - haven't heard President Biden speak directly to the Russian people, although they don't have very much of a say in what Vladimir Putin does. But that was new. He said that the world will remember that if Russia attacks Ukraine, it would be a war of choice and a war without cause or reason. And he said World War II was a war of necessity. He mentioned how the U.S. and Russia were on the same side in that war, but this one will be a war of choice.

KELLY: Biden also, as I mentioned, warned that, if this comes to a war, that it could hurt Americans. He's talking about gas prices, among other things, if he has to go ahead with sanctions on Russia. Here's what he said.

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BIDEN: I will not pretend this will be painless. It could be impact on our energy prices. So we are taking active steps to alleviate the pressure on our own energy markets and offset raising prices.

KELLY: And that felt interesting to me, Mara, driving home to Americans, hey; this isn't just some faraway conflict. This is one that could cause pain here at home.

LIASSON: That's right. He said the American people understand that defending democracy and liberty is never without cost. But this is the domestic problem for Biden. Gas prices are already high. Inflation is a top political issue for the president going into November, and there isn't that much he can do.

Later, White House officials said that he could release more oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. If he wanted to have a gas tax holiday, he'd have to get Congress to agree. So there's not a whole lot he can do to mitigate the effects of a conflict in Europe on the pump at the - in the United States.

KELLY: So set us up just for what to watch for in the next few days. I guess it's diplomacy, diplomacy, diplomacy.

LIASSON: Well, diplomacy, diplomacy, and we'll see if these reported drawdowns of troops - Russian troops are real or not. We know that Biden talked to the French President Emmanuel Macron today. Yesterday he talked to the British prime minister. He convened a large group of European leaders before he talked to Putin. And, of course, Vice President Harris is going to go to the Munich Security Conference this weekend, where Ukrainian President Zelenskyy is supposed to also attend.

KELLY: To be a fly on the wall at that one. NPR's Mara Liasson, our national political correspondent at the White House for us today - thank you, Mara.

LIASSON: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.