The off-the-record lunch between news anchors from various networks and the President is traditionally held at the White House each year ahead of the State of the Union address.
Asked to characterize Tuesday night’s speech, especially as it pertains to Ukraine, Biden went on the record and told the anchors that he felt it was important to talk about his “determination to see to it that the (European Union), NATO, all of our allies are on the same exact page, in terms of sanctions against Russia and how we deal with the invasion — and it is an invasion — of Ukraine. ”
“Because that’s the one thing that gives us power to impose severe consequences on (Russian President Vladimir) Putin for what he’s done. And one of the few things that I’m confident he’s going to have think twice about, long term, as this continues to bite. So, it’s the unity of NATO and the West,” he continued.
Administration officials have been praising Biden for getting the NATO powers to coalesce around a package of punishing sanctions, often allowing European allies to take the lead on items the US has long been pushing.
The US response to the Russian invasion in Ukraine will be a significant part of Biden’s first State of the Union address, with the US and allies taking a slew of actions in recent days to confront Russia’s actions. Other topics the President will likely explore include the US economy, including inflation challenges, the Biden domestic agenda to improve the economy for average Americans, and Covid-19.
Ahead of the address on Tuesday, the White House made clear that the Russian invasion of and attack on Ukraine was a top focus.
Though it wasn’t in his public schedule, Biden spoke to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky for a half hour on Tuesday, discussing “the United States’ continued backing for Ukraine as it defends itself against Russian aggression,” according to the White House. In a photo released by the White House, Biden is seen on the phone with Zelensky donning a blue and yellow striped tie — the colors of the Ukrainian flag.
The US remains in regular contact with Zelensky through a secure satellite phone that the US gave the Ukrainian government last month before the invasion occurred, according to a US official familiar with the matter. Previously most secure communications between the Ukrainians and US officials went through the embassy in Kyiv, two US officials said. When the US was preparing to evacuate the embassy, and as fears mounted about the Russian invasion which is now occurring, the US sent the phone that is now being used to their Ukrainian counterparts.
The secure phone allows Zelensky to remain in contact with the US while he’s mobile, the official added. Zelensky has made clear he intends to remain in the country and he is currently moving around to multiple different locations in Kyiv that are protected with a significant security presence, CNN has reported.
White House officials are mindful that the speech will reflect a figurative — and likely literal — split-screen with continued violence in Ukraine. The 9 p.m. ET speech will occur around the same time that shelling and strikes typically begin in the early morning hours in Ukraine.
Biden’s team has been closely monitoring the column of Russian forces that had been advancing toward Kyiv, and are aware of Russian warnings that it plans to carry out strikes on facilities in the Ukrainian capital.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said on Monday that Biden is expected to lay out the efforts he has taken on “to rally the world to stand up for democracy and against Russian aggression.”
He will also discuss the steps the US has taken to target Putin and his inner circle for Russia’s acts of war against Ukraine.
“And he will talk about the steps he’s taken to mitigate the impact of President Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, on the global economy and the American people,” Psaki added.
CNN’s Kevin Liptak and Kylie Atwood contributed to this report.