As if the stakes of the war in Ukraine weren’t obvious enough — and the continuing battle there not horrific enough — Joe Biden’s dramatic visit to Kyiv laid it all out in the starkest of terms.
Biden took the opportunity — and the gamble — to do more than simply say that America’s support for Ukraine was unwavering, but to show it in the most direct manner possible.
The timing — just days before the anniversary of Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine — couldn’t have been better. And neither could the visual of Biden and the ever-courageous Volodymyr Zelenskyy walking together through Kyiv streets Monday as air-raid sirens sounded.
A day later, Biden and Vladimir Putin would give major speeches, and widely conflicting accounts, on the state of play in Ukraine. What few could have predicted a year ago, when it was pretty much universally held that Russia’s invasion would be a walkover, was that it would be Biden — and not Putin — standing at the Mariinsky Palace in Kyiv.
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In his state of the union speech, a humiliated Putin announced that he was suspending Russia’s lone, remaining nuclear pact with the United States while falsely claiming that the West had “started the war” in Ukraine, which he falsely called a “neo-Nazi regime.” He also promised — and who knows yet how this promise will hold up? — eventual victory.
Meanwhile, Biden had traveled many hours by train and by plane to Kyiv and then to Warsaw to accuse Putin of brutality that amounted to “crimes against humanity” and pledge that America’s “support for Ukraine will not waver, NATO will not be divided, and we will not tire.”
To say it’s a critical moment in the war — now very much a war of attrition — is to understate the situation. What remains very much unclear is how, or if, the war can end. As Biden pointed out, Russia thought the Western alliance would have come undone by now. Instead, NATO has been more unified than anyone could have guessed. And Biden has never been better position to say this is a war between democracy and autocracy,
But as Putin made clear, Russia is in the war for the long haul. If there’s one time we should believe him, I think this could be it. Putin has known the humiliation of retreat, but what dictator in this situation could afford the humiliation of defeat?
For Ukraine, of course, the war is nothing less than a matter of survival, which helps account for their success in battle. And now what many Western analysts fear is a yearslong deadlock.
Some are now comparing the situation in Ukraine to World War I and its trench warfare — the war, it was once thought, that was so brutal it would end all wars. In this version of an oh-so-brutal war, Russia is attacking Ukrainian infrastructure — trying to win a war by freezing civilians to death — and sending in untested recruits by the many thousands as cannon fodder against dug-in Ukrainian troops.
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Ukrainian and Western officials are expecting another Russian offensive within weeks. Meanwhile, the powerful tanks and other sophisticated weaponry recently pledged to Ukraine by the U.S. and NATO countries have been slow arriving. And, to this point anyway, Biden has been unwilling to give Ukraine the F-16s that Zelenskyy — and not a few hawkish American military analysts — say he desperately needs.
From the beginning of the war, Biden, who understandably worries about being drawn into a direct conflict with Russia, has been cautious about which weapons America delivers to Ukraine. But as we’ve seen, Zelenskyy is relentless and has most often won these battles.
And to add to Biden’s problems, as if matters weren’t difficult enough, China has sent high-ranking emissaries to Moscow and is apparently considering selling Russia much-needed arms and ammunition.
It’s just that bad, which is why Biden’s trip and his tough speech were so important. In Moscow and in certain corners of Trump World, they want to frame Biden’s trip to Kyiv as a mere photo-op — here’s commentary from Colorado’s own Lauren Boebert, who, you may remember, was markedly unenthusiastic when Zelenskyy made his speech to Congress — but history, not to mention some enraged Moscow hawks, might see the moment differently.
If it was symbolic, it was certainly a symbol that no one could have missed. That’s a good thing because Biden had so many audiences he needed to reach.
Before Biden spoke, American officials were trying to make the case that his Warsaw speech would not be a rebuttal to Putin’s speech, which had come hours earlier. But it read and sounded exactly like a rebuttal, and one that was certainly personal in its message to Putin, the “tyrant.” It’s not that Biden hadn’t said many of the same things before, but he hadn’t said them in what everyone was calling basically a split-screen moment.
As chess champion and Putin critic Garry Kasparov put it in a Twitter thread praising Biden: Putin “looked and sounded like a man who knows he’s lost, who knows he’s lying even to himself, but is hoping his enemies don’t realize it yet.”
Obviously, Biden wanted to send a message to Ukraine and to those suffering across the country, from the front lines to the war-torn cities. According to reports, no modern American president had ever come so close to combat during wartime with no American military present.
Just as clearly, Biden wanted to send a message to NATO and other allies, some of which have, at times, seemed ready to falter.
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He also had a message for Putin’s buddy, Donald Trump, and Trump’s would-be challenger, Ron DeSantis, who went on TV to criticize Biden’s “blank check policy.” As more than one pundit put it, Biden went to Kyiv and DeSantis went to Fox & Friends. Because everything is political, we have to mention that this was a very good moment for a clearly energized Biden. Yes, he’s the oldest president in American history. But now he’s also the oldest president in American history to have made two nearly 10-hour train trips in a war zone.
And, of course, there was also a message for China, with Biden warning of “consequences” — if no more specific than that — if Beijing were to supply Russia with military aid.
Yes, there was much for Biden to say, And if Biden’s greatest moments haven’t always come when facing a teleprompter, this was one time his message could not have been more clear — or more necessary.
Mike Littwin has been a columnist for too many years to count. He has covered Dr. J, four presidential inaugurations, six national conventions and countless brain-numbing speeches in the New Hampshire and Iowa snow.
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