WARSAW, Poland — President Joe Biden vowed Tuesday that Russia would never defeat Ukraine and reaffirmed Western support for Kyiv just hours after the Kremlin said it would suspend participation in the last remaining nuclear arms treaty with the United States.
In a speech marking the grim first anniversary of Russia’s Feb. 24, 2022, invasion of Ukraine, Biden praised Poland and other Western allies for funneling weapons, artillery and billions in aid that have helped a resilient Kyiv fend off Russian forces for a year.
“One year ago, the world was bracing for the fall of Kyiv,” Biden said at Warsaw’s Royal Castle. “I can report that Kyiv stands strong, it stands proud and it stands free.”
Thousands of people huddled together and brandished Ukrainian, Polish and American flags at the castle where Biden last spoke in March, days after Russian tanks rolled across the Ukrainian border and launched Europe’s biggest land war since World War II. Speaking to a much smaller crowd then, he struck a somber tone and said of Russian President Vladimir Putin: “For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power.”
Nearly a year later, Biden praised Ukraine’s resolve as a triumph of democracy and proclaimed that Putin’s aims to capture Kyiv, overtake the country and fracture the NATO alliance remained out of reach.
“There should be no doubt: Our support for Ukraine will not waver, NATO will not be divided, and we will not tire,” he said. “Ukraine will never be a victory for Russia — never.”
The speech echoed his comments a day earlier in Kyiv, where he made an unannounced visit to show U.S. solidarity and announce $500 million in new aid for Ukraine. He strolled the streets of the besieged country’s capital city with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy as air-raid sirens blared, a risky feat that required a covert, predawn flight and a 10-hour, overnight train ride.
Earlier Tuesday, in a meeting with Polish President Andrzej Duda, Biden called the NATO alliance “maybe the most consequential alliance in history,” and said it is “stronger than it’s ever been” despite Putin’s desire to weaken the defense pact.
The president and Duda are due to meet other leaders of the Bucharest Nine — the eastern flank of NATO members — on Wednesday.
Biden’s speech in the Polish capital presented a study in contrasts to a pugnacious address hours earlier by Putin, in which the Russian leader said he was suspending cooperation in the New START nuclear nonproliferation agreement, the sole remaining arms control treaty between Washington and Moscow.
While Biden lauded Western unity in confronting Russia over its unprovoked attack on a smaller neighbor, Putin insisted that Moscow had not initiated the conflict last Feb. 24, when Russian troops poured across the Ukrainian border in a multipronged attack.
“They were the ones who started the war,” the Russian leader said of Ukraine and its Western allies.
Putin accused Washington, D.C., and its European partners of military and economic aggression, saying Moscow was left with no choice but to respond. His speech was in part intended to defend the war effort against festering domestic discontent. But it was unclear whether he made headway in that objective.
“When Vladimir Putin took to the podium today, all you had to do, the most telling thing, was to look at his audience, which was all of the key players in his inner circle ... and just how extraordinarily unenthusiastic every single person in that room looked,” Simon Miles, a Russia expert at Duke University, said Tuesday in a video briefing. “Absolutely no enthusiasm for this war effort, which they know is in the process of ruining their country and also their own fortunes.”
A day after Biden was rapturously welcomed in the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv, the Russian leader derided the Ukrainian people as pawns, held hostage to their “Western overlords.” In his lengthy state-of-the-nation address to the joint houses of Russia’s parliament, Putin also declared that his country could never be defeated on the battlefield.
White House officials stressed that Biden’s remarks would not be a rebuttal to Putin’s speech, pointing out that the timing of the parliamentary address was moved to align with the war’s anniversary. But the U.S. president delivered a sharp rebuke of his Russian counterpart and took aim at Putin’s claim that the West was to blame and aggression in Ukraine was a necessity.
“This war was never a necessity. It’s a tragedy,” Biden said in a direct appeal to the Russian people. “President Putin chose this war. Every day the war continues is his choice.”
Biden said the U.S. and other allies would announce more sanctions against Moscow for “the war crimes and crimes against humanity continuing to be committed by the Russians.”
The president’s audience extended beyond Europe and Moscow to viewers back home, where the 2024 presidential campaign is heating up and support for Ukraine has become a partisan issue.
Right-wing House Republicans have expressed interest in cutting back aid to Ukraine while polling shows Americans are more hesitant in supporting the U.S. role in Ukraine. Forty-eight percent of Americans said they support the U.S. providing weapons to Ukraine, a drop from the 60% who said they were in favor of sending weapons to Kyiv in May, according to the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. The same survey found 37% supported sending U.S. government funds to Ukraine while 38% opposed.
The president, who has yet to announce that he will seek a second term but has said he intends to run, has also faced concerns about his age and whether he could endure the rigors of the job for four more years. White House aides were quick to highlight the president’s grueling, whirlwind trip to Kyiv and Warsaw, demonstrating his ability to handle the job at age 80.
Putin’s speech drew a daylong series of gibes on social media, with Ukrainians pointing out that Moscow had suffered a series of humiliating defeats in the nearly one year since launching the full-scale invasion. The address demonstrated Putin’s “confusion and irrelevance,” said Mykhylo Podalyak, a senior adviser to Zelenskyy.
Even as the Russian leader was speaking, the civilian toll mounted in Ukraine, where authorities reported at least six deaths in the southern city of Kherson, including six people killed at a transit stop. The government in Kyiv has accused Russia of committing hundreds of thousands of war crimes in Ukraine, including the indiscriminate bombardment of civilian areas.
Zelenskyy, in his channel on the Telegram messaging app, accused Russian forces of “again mercilessly killing the civilian population,” posting pictures of crumpled bodies in bloodied civilian garb in Kherson. Ukrainian forces recaptured the strategic city in November, and it has since come under nearly daily shelling.
“The world has no right to forget for a single moment that Russian cruelty and aggression know no bounds,” Zelenskyy wrote in his Telegram post.
Meanwhile, Putin’s announcement that Russia would not participate in the New START treaty was quickly criticized by Western leaders, with U.S. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken saying that the decision was “deeply unfortunate and very irresponsible.”
“We’ll be watching carefully to see what Russia actually does,” he said in Athens, where he is meeting with Greek officials.
The U.S. extended the New START treaty with Russia for an additional five years at the start of the Biden administration, arguing it was in the best security interests of both countries.
Russian officials had already indicated they might jettison the treaty when they failed to show up earlier this year for what was supposed to be a negotiations meeting with the U.S.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg accused Putin of having “dismantled the architecture of full arms control in the world,” and urged him to reconsider.
The U.S.-based Arms Control Association warned that the death of New START could trigger a global nuclear arms race.
“W/out a new agreement to replace New START, each side could double the number of their deployed strategic nuclear warheads within 2-3 years,” Daryl Kimball, executive director of the association, said on Twitter. “It would be a senseless arms race to nowhere but increasing nuclear danger. It would be a race that neither side can hope to win.”