Speaking Saturday at the Royal Castle in Warsaw, on the front lines of European democracy as war rages in neighboring Ukraine, President Biden no doubt intended to evoke two great Cold War speeches at Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate — one by John F. Kennedy in 1963 and one by Ronald Reagan in 1987. Biden’s ode to democracy and to NATO solidarity was, for a president not considered to be a great speechmaker, eloquent and stirring.
“A dictator bent on rebuilding an empire will never erase a people’s love for liberty. Brutality will never grind down their will to be free,” the president declared. “Ukraine will never be a victory for Russia, for free people refuse to live in a world of hopelessness and darkness.”
The speech might be known in future years for one line, which the White House quickly walked back. “For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power,” Biden exclaimed, after earlier declaring that Russia had already lost its strategic objective. That was a bold declaration, one that essentially wrote off any direct relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin, though Biden did not call for the United States to bring about regime change, leaving that to the Russian people. In any event, the White House later clarified: “The president’s point was that Putin cannot be allowed to exercise power over his neighbors or the region. He was not discussing Putin’s power in Russia, or regime change.”
The speech might also be remembered for the heartfelt remarks offered directly to ordinary Russians. “Let me say this if you’re able to listen: You, the Russian people, are not our enemy,” Biden said. After describing this conflict’s human suffering and devastation, Biden assured the Russian people, “I’m telling you the truth: This war is not worthy of you, the Russian people.” This is a wise tactic, for the Russian people will eventually have to decide Putin’s fate and whether their economic and political regression should end.
Biden once more reminds us how fortunate we are to have an experienced diplomat and energetic proponent of our democratic alliances in the Oval Office and representing us abroad, rather than Putin’s poodle, who amplified Russian propaganda and gnawed at the ties that bind the United States and Europe. Several further aspects of Biden’s speech, the best delivered and most emotional of his presidency, deserve emphasis.
For starters, Russia’s actual defeat — not simply a partial victory or one without subjugation of Ukraine — is in the realm of reality. Russia seems to be turning from Kyiv, focusing on the Donbas, two regions of which were under control of Putin surrogates before the invasion. In other words, Putin may soon realize that his dream of rebuilding the Russian empire has failed, at least for now. If he’s looking to claim a much smaller victory, count this as a true David and Goliath story, a remarkable triumph of a democratic people.
Also, Biden was careful to warn that the battle for democracy won’t be brief. The Cold War took more than 40 years to win. In using the moment to rally NATO and to declare its goal of energy independence from Russia, Biden puts meat on the bones of his “America is back” slogan. But the sacrifices (higher energy prices, slower economic growth) require patience, something not usually abundant in American politics.
Finally, Biden should strongly consider a parallel speech here at home to address the threats to democracy posed not by a foreign dictator but a right-wing movement that also thinks “might makes right,” that also shows contempt for a free press and elections, and that does not understand the bedrock principle of democratic elections: When you lose you allow the victor to govern.
When the wife of a Supreme Court justice invokes religion and insane conspiracy theories to justify refusing to concede an election; when the majority of one political party refuses to recognize the legitimacy of the duly elected president; when the GOP decides voter suppression and subversion are acceptable tactics; and when the right has descended into QAnon-level smears and unsubtle racism, we have a democratic crisis at home.
Biden should bring back with him some of the eloquent language he used in Poland — and start addressing the authoritarian menace the GOP poses in the United States.
War in Ukraine: What you need to know
The latest: Russia fired at least 85 missiles on at least six major cities in Ukraine on November 15, in one of the most widespread attacks of the war so far. The strikes came just hours after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, speaking by video link, presented a 10-point peace plan to G-20 leaders at a summit in Indonesia. As in previous Russian missile attacks, critical civilian infrastructure appeared to be primary targets. Parts of several cities that were hit were left without electrical power on Tuesday afternoon.
Russia’s Gamble: The Post examined the road to war in Ukraine, and Western efforts to unite to thwart the Kremlin’s plans, through extensive interviews with more than three dozen senior U.S., Ukrainian, European and NATO officials.
Photos: Washington Post photographers have been on the ground from the beginning of the war — here’s some of their most powerful work.