Hours after Vladimir Putin’s state of the nation speech in Moscow on 21 February, the US president Joe Biden delivered his own remarks in Warsaw, Poland. Twenty-four hours earlier, he had secretly travelled to Kyiv to meet Volodymyr Zelensky, where the two leaders strolled through the city centre as the air-raid sirens wailed. The next day, standing in front of the Royal Castle in the Polish capital, which was lit up in the blue and gold colours of the Ukrainian flag, Biden reflected on how Zelensky, and his nation, had defied the world’s expectations over the past year.
“One year ago the world was bracing for the fall of Kyiv,” Biden said. “Well, I have just come from a visit to Kyiv, and I can report: Kyiv stands strong!” The crowd cheered. “Kyiv stands proud,” he continued. “It stands tall. And most important, it stands free.” There was more applause.
Earlier in the day, Vladimir Putin had framed the conflict in his own speech as part of a wider struggle in which Russia had been forced to defend itself. In his twisted re-imagining, Ukraine has been seized by a “neo-Nazi regime” and transformed into a “battering ram against Russia” by the West, as part of a plot to subjugate Russia and secure “unlimited power”. The world, Putin solemnly declared, had reached a “time of radical, irreversible change”.
For Biden too, the war must be understood as part of a broader contest for the future of the global order, or as he put it: “a test for the ages.” When Russia invaded Ukraine, he explained, it wasn’t only that country that was being tested. “Europe was being tested. America was being tested. Nato was being tested. All democracies were being tested.” The question was whether they would be united and stand up to Putin’s aggression, he said, or accept a “world governed by fear and force”.
“Autocrats only understand one word: No. No. No,” he said, looking straight at the cameras as though he might reach Putin on the other side. “No, you will not take my country. No, you will not take my freedom. No, you will not take my future.” The democracies of the world would “stand guard over freedom today, tomorrow, and forever,” he vowed. “That’s the message I carried to Kyiv yesterday, directly to the people of Ukraine.”
It was a powerful speech, reinforced by the symbolism of Biden’s visit to Kyiv the previous day. And there were clever lines. Putin thought he would get the “Finlandisation of Nato,” Biden quipped, referring to the process by which the Soviet Union coerced Finland intro remaining neutral during the Cold War. “Instead, he got the Nato-isation of Finland – and Sweden.”
Yet Biden’s address glossed over the growing domestic political challenges to his pledge that US support for Ukraine “will not waver”. During the previous 72 hours, both the former president Donald Trump, who is running again to be the Republican nominee for the presidency in 2024, and Ron DeSantis, Trump’s most serious likely rival, had called for the US to scale back its aid to Ukraine. The clear dividing line Biden has repeatedly tried to draw between autocrats and democrats is also undermined by the fact that countries like India and Brazil, two of the world’s biggest democracies, are still buying Russian exports such as oil and diesel.
Both Biden and Putin understand what is at stake in this war. There is no question that both men are personally committed to the fight. With their respective appeals on 21 February, both sought to galvanise support for a sustained struggle at home and to signal to their adversaries abroad that they have no intention of backing down. The real message to take from these duelling speeches is that both leaders view this as a long-term contest – and that as the conflict in Ukraine now enters its second year, they see no end in sight.
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