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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Biden and Putin offer radically different portraits of the war in Ukraine

President Joe Biden participates in a bilateral meeting with President Andrzej Duda of Poland on Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2023.

By David E. Sanger

Just hours after Vladimir Putin blamed the West for starting the war in Ukraine and said he was suspending the one remaining nuclear arms treaty with the United States, President Joe Biden on Tuesday accused the Russian leader of committing atrocities on a vast scale, and called on the world to stand up to him and other “tyrants.”

In a split-screen moment, the two speeches, only hours apart and just three days before the anniversary of Russia’s invasion, gave radically different accounts of how a war that has already created hundreds of thousands of casualties is reshaping Europe.

Biden, speaking at the royal castle in Warsaw on a cold, drizzly day, seemed energized by his surprise trip into Kyiv the day before, repeatedly noting that a capital Putin thought would fall in days remained free, and that its resolve to face down a far larger power was greater than ever.

“Kyiv stands!” Biden declared, as a crowd of several thousand, many waving American flags, stood bathed in lights aimed at the centuries-old castle. Time and time again, he referred to Putin’s many failures over the past year, both military and diplomatic, and made the case that 2022 had been the year that democracies rallied against a common adversary. “Autocrats only understand one word: No, no, no. No, you will not take my country,” Biden said.

The president thanked Poland for taking in 1.5 million refugees from the war in Ukraine and for becoming the primary transfer point for a flood of arms that have been critical for Ukraine’s military forces. But his rallying cry to the Polish people omitted discussion of the White House’s current worries.

Biden and his aides are clearly concerned that the war could be devolving into a stalemate, in which neither side will negotiate but neither can turn the tide.

Biden made no reference to Putin’s announcement, before a gathering of governors and lawmakers in Moscow earlier in the day, that he would not allow inspectors from the United States back into Russia to assure Moscow’s compliance with New START. Nor did he talk about Putin’s episodic threats to employ nuclear weapons, usually uttered when Russian forces were losing ground.

But while the White House has tried at various points to make the case that the war in Ukraine is a battle for the preservation of some norms of national behavior — respect for the sovereignty of nations, and the right of populations to choose their leaders — he kept returning to Putin. At one point he mocked one of the Russian leader’s assertions earlier in the day that NATO had been planning to attack Russia, presumably from inside Ukraine.

“The West was not plotting to attack Russia,” Biden said, going on to say that Russia had taken Ukrainian children in an attempt to steal the country’s future, and had for a time cut off Ukraine’s exports of grain and other farm products. “Putin tried to starve the world,” he said.

There was no new policy evident in the speech, although Biden promised new sanctions on Russia by the end of the week and said vaguely that “we will hold accountable those who are responsible” for the war. He did not call Putin a war criminal, as he did from this city in March of last year. But he also did not address the limitations of sanctions, something the West has discovered as China, India and Turkey, among others, have kept buying Russian petroleum products.

The speech itself came at a critical moment. Although the European allies have held together far more effectively than anyone expected a year ago, there were signs at the Munich Security Conference, which concluded on Sunday, that many European leaders wondered whether they could sustain this level of spending on arms, government support and humanitarian aid to Ukraine.

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