Joe Biden’s Showy Defiance of Vladimir Putin

As political choreography goes, it was pitch-perfect: the tall American President, in his trademark aviator sunglasses and dark overcoat, striding unfazed through the beautiful streets of Kyiv, on Monday, as air-raid sirens blared, with Ukraine’s young leader, in his wartime olive fatigues, at his side. Joe Biden and Volodymyr Zelensky may be an unlikely pairing, but their short, defiant stroll through Zelensky’s embattled capital, nearly a year to the day after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, made for a historic sight.

It was also—and this was clearly the point—about as dramatic a contrast as one could imagine with Vladimir Putin, who spoke the next day in Moscow, far from the front lines of a war that he has so far failed to win. Putin’s speech, bristling with thinly veiled nuclear threats, false accusations, and culture-war lamentations about the decadent West, was such a long and predictable rant that some Kremlin functionaries in the audience nodded off. Only at the end of the nearly two-hour speech did Putin make news, announcing that his country would suspend its participation in the New START agreement, the last major bilateral arms-control deal left between Russia and the United States. All of which, of course, only reinforced his image as both dangerous and dangerously out of touch.

Hours after Putin spoke, Biden followed up his triumphant visit to Kyiv with a stirring—and notably personal—rebuke of Putin during an address of his own, outside the historic Warsaw Royal Castle, in Poland, which was floodlit in the blue and yellow of Ukraine’s flag. Ten times, Biden called out the Russian leader by name. He spoke of “President Putin’s war,” and labelled him a tyrant and a dictator. “President Putin’s craven lust for land and power will fail,” he vowed. He stopped short of the language he used the last time he was in Warsaw, when he went off script to insist, “For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power.” But, if Biden did not say so, the point was not all that different.

It has been Biden’s curse—and opportunity—to become President after a lifetime of aspiring to the job at just the moment when democracy has come under attack, at home and abroad. At his best, Biden has summoned an admirable clarity in describing the threat, whether from Constitution-defying Trumpists in the United States or Putin and his fellow-authoritarians overseas. For more than two decades, many Western leaders—including, at times, Biden—labored under the illusion that the Russian President was manageable, unsavory, to be sure, but still somehow containable. In his Warsaw speech, Biden eviscerated what remained of that illusion. “Appetites of the autocrat cannot be appeased,” Biden said. “They must be opposed. Autocrats only understand one word: ‘No.’ ‘No.’ ‘No.’ ”

Biden’s advisers denied that they had scheduled his address as a direct response to Putin’s, but they should have taken credit for doing so. The war in Ukraine is the great international leadership test of Biden’s Presidency, and the week’s duelling appearances could not have offered a clearer juxtaposition. If Ukraine survives, this trip will, no doubt, be remembered as Biden’s signature foreign-policy moment, like Ronald Reagan’s “tear down this wall” speech in a divided Berlin or Richard Nixon’s historic visit to China.

But this is war, not a Hollywood movie. The writers got the Churchillian set piece right; the plot, however, remains more than a bit unclear. During the past year, Biden has rallied Congress and the NATO allies to provide unprecedented sums for Ukraine’s defense—more than fifty billion dollars from the United States alone—supplying a vast modern arsenal to Ukraine that was all but unthinkable when the invasion began. But is it enough?

If Ukraine falters and Russia manages a successful land grab, all the photo ops of Biden’s trip will not matter, except as a reminder that stirring rhetoric is a necessary but insufficient precondition for victory. Which is why I was surprised by the oddly triumphant note that sometimes crept into Biden’s Warsaw speech, as if the fight were already over and done. There was more than a little self-congratulation: Putin had been wrong; the West hadn’t rolled over and let him take Ukraine. “One year later, we know the answers,” Biden said. “We would stand up for democracy, and we did.”

The President’s use of the past tense for a present crisis just didn’t sound quite right. This awful year of war has caused more than three hundred thousand casualties on both sides, according to various Western estimates, and sent millions of Ukrainians fleeing from their homes. Russia now holds some twenty per cent of Ukraine’s territory, and it’s not clear that the West’s Leopard tanks and Patriot-missile batteries and precision-guided munitions and long-range howitzers can dislodge this occupying force. “Shock and awe” sanctions imposed by the U.S. and its allies promised to break the Russian economy, but that has not happened. World markets are still buying Russian energy, even if Western European countries are weaning themselves from it. China’s “no limits” partnership with Russia has not wavered, and Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned this week that China is considering supplying Russia directly with weapons to continue its war of aggression. Kyiv stands, yes, but it is also true that Ukraine’s fate is not yet decided.

On Tuesday, Putin repeated his nonsense about the “totalitarian” United States and “neo-Nazis” in Ukraine. “It was they who unleashed the war,” Putin claimed. Nothing about that statement is accurate. The Russian President’s lies about who is to blame for the conflict are vile. But it is also true that five successive U.S. Presidents and a host of European leaders not only failed to deter Putin from repeated acts of aggression outside Russia’s borders but deterred themselves from pushing back more strongly against Russia in the run-up to this catastrophic, deadly conflict. The one-year anniversary of what will undoubtedly go down as the worst fighting in Europe since the end of the Second World War should be an occasion for some humility.

Before Biden spoke in Warsaw, Polish President Andrzej Duda alluded to this unfortunate recent history. “There is no place for business as usual with Russia anymore,” he said. For years, Poland and other Eastern European states that, in the past, were targets of Russia’s imperial aggression have prodded bigger European powers, such as France and Germany, to stand more firmly against Putin, generally to no avail. Even within Biden’s tough words, there remained a note of caution that is a reminder of how hard it has been—and will continue to be—to overcome the habits of business as usual with Russia. Indeed, Putin is counting on it.

The divisions, which Biden was at such pains in his speech to portray as nonexistent, are in fact very real. Back in Washington, critics come on both flanks. Hawks, from both parties, fear that Biden, for all his strong words and diplomatic prowess in building and sustaining a Western alliance to bolster Ukraine, has pursued a policy of incrementalism that keeps Ukraine in the fight, without giving it the support it needs to actually win.

John Herbst, a former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine, summed up this view in a sharp response to Biden’s trip to Kyiv, which he called “useful, positive, and even necessary,” but a reflection nonetheless of a policy that “is neither strong nor visionary,” the approach of a “bookkeeper” focussed on doling out armaments rather than a “statesman” more clearly spelling out an objective of Ukrainian victory and supplying the means to achieve it. It is worth noting in this context that Biden avoided saying whether Ukraine winning the war means expelling Russia from all of the Ukrainian territory that it has seized, including the Crimean Peninsula, which Putin illegally annexed in 2014. Instead, Biden framed the goal, rather awkwardly, as a negative: “Ukraine will never be a victory for Russia.”

Then there are the critics on the other end of the political spectrum, such as former President Donald Trump, who admired Putin’s “genius” right before the start of the invasion and has opposed further aid to Ukraine. Given the powerful optics of Biden’s visit of solidarity to Kyiv, I was struck by the immediate pile-on by some Republicans who instantly perceived political advantage in bashing Biden for his trip. Most notable was Florida’s governor, Ron DeSantis, a would-be Trump killer in the Republican 2024 primaries, who nonetheless appears to be adopting aspects of Trump’s “America First” foreign policy. “He’s very concerned about those borders halfway around the world,” DeSantis said of Biden’s trip, on Fox News. “He’s not done anything to secure our own border here at home.” The 2024 attack ads practically write themselves: Joe Biden, who cares more about Kyiv than Kentucky, sends money to faraway lands and ignores our suffering at home.

That is a real obstacle to Biden’s success—and Ukraine’s. Polls suggest that many Americans, and not just hyper-partisan Republican primary voters, are wary of the support that the U.S. is supplying. I worry that it’s not the eastern front of Ukraine but the home front that may, in the end, pose the biggest challenge to standing strong against Putin. Perhaps, though, that is a worry for another day. For now, Biden has done what he can, and what he ought to. And he sure looked pretty tough in those sunglasses, walking down the street in a war zone as no President in our lifetime ever had. Take that, Putin. ♦

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