President Biden explicitly called Russian President Vladimir Putin a “war criminal” Wednesday, after weeks of avoiding the term and at a time when his administration is still determining whether that label officially applies.
The asseveration was emblematic of the day’s high emotions and dramatic agenda, which were driven by a forceful speech to Congress delivered by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, rather than by Biden’s own carefully laid plans and message.
Biden watched Zelensky’s 9 a.m. address from the private library of his White House residence, absorbing an emotional plea that invoked both Pearl Harbor and Sept. 11 — two deadly attacks on the United States that came from the sky — and beseeched the president to close the skies above Ukraine.
“Our country experienced the same every day, right now, at this moment, every night for three weeks now,” Zelensky said, speaking to lawmakers via video with the help of an interpreter.
Almost exactly four hours later, Biden responded with his own remarks praising Zelensky’s “passionate” and “significant” speech, outlining the help his administration is providing Ukraine and announcing significant new aid. But he also made clear that the crux of Zelensky’s appeal — a no-fly zone above Ukraine — remains a nonstarter for the United States.
Biden’s comments, which began more than an hour after initially scheduled and ran half the length of Zelensky’s entreaty — eight minutes to Zelensky’s 16 — underscored the fluid dynamic between the two leaders, with Biden (wearing a suit, subdued, age 79) finding himself, for one of the first times since Russia invaded Ukraine, clearly in response mode to Zelensky (clad in military green, resolute, age 44).
“The American people are answering President Zelensky’s call for more help, more weapons for Ukraine to defend itself, more tools to fight Russian aggression,” Biden said.
His comments at times took on an almost defensive tone, as he noted that the United States had been equipping Ukraine since before the invasion, that American weapons have helped the Ukrainians inflict significant damage and that the $800 million in new aid he was announcing would include “cutting-edge systems” such as drones.
Starting with Russia’s initial buildup on the Ukrainian border last fall, Biden and his team took the lead in trying to avert Russian aggression against its neighbor. The administration worked with NATO and other Western allies to deter Putin through diplomatic channels and the threat of sanctions. And Biden himself signed off on a new strategy to declassify intelligence, sharing it with the world in an attempt to thwart Putin’s ability to use a false pretext to invade Ukraine.
The White House even launched a secretive “Tiger Team” to plan for how to handle a Russian invasion.
Indeed, if Russia’s bellicosity offered any silver lining, it was that Putin helped catapult Biden back into a position in which he is most comfortable, serving as a transatlantic leader and declaring — both literally and symbolically — that America is back after four years of chaos and alliance-busting under Donald Trump.
But since the actual war between Russia and Ukraine began three weeks ago, Biden and his European counterparts have articulated no clear end game, and Wednesday’s Biden-Zelensky juxtaposition offered something of a split screen, with the U.S. president and his team trying to explain why the administration was falling short on meeting Zelensky’s stirring request.
The Ukrainian leader ended his speech by switching to English and calling out Biden directly: “You are the leader of the nation, of your great nation,” Zelensky said. “I wish you to be the leader of the world. Being the leader of the world means to be the leader of peace.”
In response, Biden found himself explaining at great length what he has already done to support Ukraine and announcing that he is authorizing an additional $800 million in security assistance, noting that it brought the total to $1 billion “just this week” and to $2 billion since the start of his administration.
“This new package on its own is going to provide unprecedented assistance to Ukraine,” Biden said. “It includes 800 antiaircraft systems to make sure the Ukrainian military can continue to stop the planes and helicopters that have been attacking their people and to defend the Ukrainian airspace. And at the request of President Zelensky, we have identified and are helping Ukraine acquire additional longer-range antiaircraft systems and the munitions for those systems.”
The White House reported that the $800 million in new assistance includes 800 Stinger antiaircraft systems; 2,000 Javelin, 1,000 light anti-armor weapons, and 6,000 AT-4 anti-armor systems; 100 Tactical Unmanned Aerial Systems; 100 grenade launchers, 5,000 rifles, 1,000 pistols, 400 machine guns and 400 shotguns; more than 20 million rounds of small-arms ammunition and grenade launcher and mortar rounds; 25,000 sets of body armor; and 25,000 helmets.
Speaking to reporters Wednesday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki was repeatedly pressed on why the administration has been willing to provide Ukraine lethal assistance, such as Javelin antitank missiles and Stinger surface-to-air missiles, while repeatedly refusing Zelensky’s requests for Polish MiG fighter jets.
The administration has sought to draw a careful line between defensive and offensive weapons, arguing that the latter risked setting off a direct confrontation with Russia that could turn into a larger war.
“I would note that the equipment that we’ve provided is defensive, as you know, not offensive,” Psaki said. “And we see that as being a difference.”
And again, several minutes later, Psaki offered: “Javelins and Stingers are defensive weapons. MiGs or planes are offensive weapons, which are a different type of military system.”
But Poland has offered to provide fighter planes to the United States for use in Ukraine, a notion that has some bipartisan support on Capitol Hill. Immediately after Zelensky’s speech, several Republican lawmakers weighed in with calls for the Biden administration to send Zelensky the MiGs he wants.
“Zelensky has the courage of his convictions. The question he asked the Congress and the United States government is will we have the courage of ours,” said Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.). “We’re a superpower — we should act like it.”
Asked about a no-fly zone, Sasse added: “We should have gotten them planes long ago.”
And referring to a video Zelensky showed Congress that included footage of his country being decimated, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) offered a similar assessment.
“I don’t know how anyone could listen to him and see the videos and not be in favor of sending the MiGs, sending drones, sending additional weaponry, ceasing doing business in Russia and implementing his call for broader sanctions,” Collins said.
As for Biden’s unexpected comment that Putin is a war criminal, Psaki depicted it as a heartfelt remark. “The president’s remarks speak for themselves,” she said. “He was speaking from his heart and speaking from what we’ve seen on television, which is barbaric actions by a brutal dictator through his invasion of a foreign country.”
She reiterated Wednesday that the State Department is conducting a legal review to determine whether the actions in Ukraine are war crimes. “If Russia is intentionally targeting civilians, that would be a war crime,” she said last week in disclosing the inquiry. “But we need to go through the legal assessment and review in order to make a formal conclusion.”
Vice President Harris endorsed a war crimes inquiry last week, speaking during a visit to Poland, saying, “Absolutely there should be an investigation, and we should all be watching.” And in The Hague, the prosecutor’s office at the International Criminal Court recently announced that it was looking into the Ukraine situation.
But neither the international court nor the U.S. government has formally concluded that Russia’s actions constitute war crimes, making Biden’s seemingly spontaneous assertion Wednesday all the more striking.
Psaki emphasized that the administration has been in regular contact with the Ukrainians, saying that while Biden is not prepared to accede to every demand by Zelensky, nothing the Ukrainian leader requested came as a surprise.
“If we were President Zelensky, we would be asking for everything possible as well, and continuing to ask for it,” Psaki said. “Because he is watching his country and his people be attacked and brutalized by President Putin and the Russian military,” Psaki said.
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