Joe Biden heaped blame on Vladimir Putin for waging a war of “choice” in Ukraine that Russia will “never” win, as the US president sought to rally the west for a long and bloody campaign to defend democracy in Kyiv.
Speaking against the backdrop of Warsaw’s Royal Castle, Biden delivered a keynote speech that directly challenged claims of US belligerence made by Russia’s president in his own televised speech earlier on Tuesday.
“The West was not plotting to attack Russia, as Putin said today . . . this war was never a necessity, it’s a tragedy,” Biden said. “Every day the war continues is his choice.”
The separate addresses, delivered just hours apart, laid out starkly different world views ahead of Friday’s anniversary of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
Before an enthusiastic crowd of supporters, Biden mocked Putin’s strategy as misconceived and self-defeating, while calling on the west to act on Kyiv’s pleas for the weapons to mount a counteroffensive this spring.
“Brutality will never grind down the will of the free, and Ukraine will never be a victory for Russia,” Biden said. “Never.”
But he added Ukraine and its allies needed to be “clear-eyed” about the “hard and very bitter” days of fighting that lay ahead. “The defence of freedom is not the work of a day or a year,” he said.
Putin had earlier struck a truculent tone as he blamed the US for forcing him into invading Ukraine and suspended Russia’s participation in the only remaining nuclear arms treaty with Washington.
The so-called New Start treaty limits the number of strategic nuclear weapons deployed by the two countries’ and imposes an inspection-and-notification regime. Antony Blinken, US secretary of state, called Putin’s decision “deeply unfortunate and irresponsible”.
While Russia’s sputtering military campaign has failed to meet its original goals and has suffered heavy losses, Putin’s forces remain in control of some 20 per cent of Ukraine’s territory. Moscow is also leaning on its vast manpower resources and has called up 300,000 additional troops.
Since Russia invaded Ukraine last year, the US has given nearly $30bn in lethal assistance, as well as $13bn in direct budget support and $2bn in humanitarian aid.
Biden, who had visited Kyiv on Monday, said contrary to expectations last year that the Ukrainian capital would fall, “I can report that Kyiv stands strong, it stands proud, it stands tall and most importantly it stands free.”
He vowed to support Ukraine as long as it takes. But some officials and analysts question whether he will be able to maintain current levels of public backing for a long war.
The timing of the set-piece speeches sharpened the contrast between Putin and Biden, two veteran leaders schooled in the cold war whose legacies might be defined on the battlefields of Ukraine.
But prior to Biden’s speech, US national security adviser Jake Sullivan played down the clash between the two leaders.
“We did not set the speech up some kind of head-to-head,” Sullivan said. “This is not a rhetorical contest with anyone else. This is an affirmative statement of values — a vision for what the world we’re trying to build and defend should look like.”
The event had the feel of a campaign rally, with US, Polish and Ukrainian flags on display and songs by American artists such as Bruce Springsteen and Beyoncé blaring out as the crowd assembled to hear Biden speak. The speech was simultaneously translated into Ukrainian, Russian and Polish.
The Warsaw address aimed to demonstrate to Russia Biden’s support for Ukraine, to reassure allies that the commitment would endure, while at the same time shoring up public support at home, where divisions are growing over the levels of assistance to Kyiv.
“President Biden needs to push back against the persistent notion that Ukraine’s cause is lost,” said Daniel Fried, a former US ambassador to Poland and a distinguished fellow at the Atlantic Council think-tank. “That their resistance is noble but in the end futile, that Putin will simply grind them into dust. That view is widely held and persistent.”