The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘We will save democracy’: Biden offers hope to resilient Ukrainians in war with Russia

President vowed to keep Putin isolated and punished, but with problems at home, he pivoted quickly from foreign policy to domestic priorities

President Biden’s State of the Union address on March 1 focused heavily on the U.S. role and response to Russia’s continued attacks in Ukraine. (Video: Blair Guild/The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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President Biden confronted a world transformed by Russian aggression in Ukraine on Tuesday night, challenged in his State of the Union address to define the stakes of a new era in international security.

Biden spoke as a president weakened politically at home but also as the leader of a world united — perhaps surprisingly so to Russian President Vladimir Putin — against Russia’s invading armies. Amid divisions at home over his domestic agenda and warning signs for his Democratic Party ahead of the November midterm elections, Biden spoke also as the architect of an international coalition that has responded swiftly to Putin’s decision to trample the borders of a sovereign state with tough sanctions on Russia and weapons shipments to Ukraine.

Biden wasted no time in addressing the war in Ukraine, opening his speech with ringing praise for the courage and resilience of the Ukrainian people, condemnation for Putin and an expression of resolve by the United States to make the Russian leader pay for his transgressions. “We are inflicting pain on Russia and supporting the people of Ukraine,” he said. “Putin is now isolated from the world more than ever.”

His words drew an outpouring of cheers and applause from Democrats and Republicans in the House chamber in a sign of just how much Putin has united a divided America just as he has united most of the rest of the world.

“He [Putin] thought he could roll into Ukraine and the world would roll over,” Biden said. “Instead he met a wall of strength he never imagined. He met the Ukrainian people.”

But while the speech included stirring rhetoric, Biden said much less about the longer-term consequences of what is unfolding in Europe. He was very much in the moment at time when the war rages on inconclusively.

The president did not, however, step back to set the events in the historical context of the first major land war in Europe since World War II and how America’s security and diplomatic priorities might be reshaped by what could be a lengthy struggle to keep Putin isolated and contained.

Nor did Biden make a concerted effort to say why he believes Americans should be invested in this new struggle. After his opening remarks about Ukraine, he quickly shifted to the domestic portion of the speech, which consumed most of his time. Only at the end did he return to the international challenge. “Now is the hour,” he said. “Our moment of responsibility. Our test of resolve and conscience, of history itself. It is in this moment that our character is formed. Our purpose is found. Our future is forged. ... We will save democracy.”

The state of the union, according to President Biden’s worried supporters

Only rarely does a president’s State of the Union address coincide with this kind of international crisis, and it caused some significant revisions of Biden’s text. While the fighting in Ukraine might seem to some Americans as distant from the problems of high inflation and the lingering disruptions from the coronavirus pandemic, what has happened over the past week overseas could well define his presidency as much as the domestic issues that have been his focus for most of his first year in office.

Abroad, elite opinion has given the president and his administration high marks for their handling of the run-up to last week’s invasion. Through almost nonstop diplomacy over many months, and because Putin did what many thought he would not do, NATO is more united and robust than it has been in many years, the European Union has found its voice, and individual European countries — most notably Germany — have undertaken wholesale changes in their security postures.

But the future of the conflict in Ukraine is far from certain and Russia could yet achieve its goal of taking over the former Soviet country. The road ahead could be long and difficult, even if the fighting eventually subsides. For Biden, who has spent decades dealing with foreign policy issues and whose orientation long has been toward America’s transatlantic alliances, Tuesday’s speech offered a unique platform from which to describe for Americans the risks, opportunities and likely costs to their pocketbooks that the battle between Putin and the West will bring.

Biden touched briefly on the possible short-term costs, saying, “I’m taking robust action to make sure the pain of our sanctions is targeted at Russia’s economy. And I will use every tool at our disposal to protect American businesses and consumers.”

He also, again, sought to reassure Americans that he will not send U.S. forces to fight in Ukraine. At the same time, however, he reiterated America’s commitment to NATO. “The United States and our Allies will defend every inch of territory of NATO countries with the full force of our collective power,” he said.

In Putin, intelligence analysts see an isolated leader who underestimated the West but could lash out if cornered

Democracy versus authoritarianism has been a theme of Biden’s presidency since he was inaugurated. But until now, the discussion has often had a domestic tinge rather than a global one — a counter to the assault by former president Donald Trump and his loyalists on the pillars of democratic government in the United States.

Now, what Biden has talked about is on vivid display in an international context, as an isolated dictator seeks to re-create a Russian empire and impose his will on a neighboring state, one with a free and functioning democracy. Talk of an existential struggle between democracy and authoritarianism no longer seems theoretical with Russians bombarding Kyiv and Kharkiv in the face of serious resistance from Ukraine’s army and its galvanized citizenry.

“In the battle between democracy and autocracy, democracies are rising to the moment, and the world is clearly choosing the side of peace and security,” Biden said. “This is a real test.” But, he added, “It’s going to take time. So let us continue to draw inspiration from the iron will of the Ukrainian people.”

President Biden began his State of the Union address on March 1 speaking on Russia’s aggression in Ukraine and introduced the Ukrainian ambassador to the U.S. (Video: The Washington Post)

When Biden came to office, his focus in this struggle between democracy and autocracy was more on the threats from a rising China and its president, Xi Jinping. Now he is preoccupied with Putin and Russia, and there are questions about whether the administration can manage both those challenges while dealing with everything else. Yet there seems no choice but to do so.

Ahead of Biden’s speech, U.S. foreign policy analysts were saying that the world as it has been known for the past three decades, since the breakup of the Soviet Union, is now gone and perhaps irrevocably so, requiring economic, diplomatic and military responses.

Biden lets European leaders take center stage on Ukraine

To many in Europe, all this is quite clear already — that Putin has broken the mold and there is no going back, and that rebuilding a relationship with the Russian leader is out of the question.

“This is epochal,” said Francois Heisbourg, senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Paris. “We don’t know where it’s going to go, but we have left port. We are somewhere very different.”

Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff, director of the Berlin office of the German Marshall Fund of the United States, said in an email, “Never in my life have I seen an about-face quite like that in German politics.”

He was referring not just to the closing of the unopened Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline — built to bring natural gas from Russia to Germany — but more to the announcement by German Chancellor Olaf Scholz that his country would increase its defense budget by more than $100 billion and break long-standing policy by shipping antitank and antiaircraft weapons to Ukraine.

“This represents the moment Germany has become comfortable with being a military power in Europe and Europe has become comfortable with Germany as a military power,” Kleine-Brockhoff said.

Both credited Biden and his administration for months of diplomacy and intelligence sharing that helped to produce the unified and rapid response to punish Russia economically and isolate Putin and his country in every way possible. But this will not be a battle of short duration. As long as Putin remains in power, the unity and resilience of the West will matter — and Biden, as the president of the most powerful country in the alliance, will remain at a focal point in keeping the pressure on indefinitely.

“When the history of this era is written, Putin’s war on Ukraine will have left Russia weaker and the rest of the world stronger,” Biden said Tuesday night. “While it shouldn’t have taken something so terrible for people around the world to see what’s at stake, now everyone sees it clearly.”

This is a message he will have to repeat over many weeks and months.