While America’s media is embroiled in another confected controversy, this one about whether Joe Biden hurt Vladimir Putin’s feelings by speaking the truth, it is missing two far bigger stories.
One of those stories is the historical shift signaled by Biden’s Warsaw speech. While some compared it to Kennedy’s “Ich bin ein berliner” speech or Reagan’s “Mr. Gorbachev tear down that wall” address, Biden’s was more like the speech given by Winston Churchill in Fulton Missouri on March 5, 1946. In that speech, with the words “From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the continent” the former British Prime Minister defined the front line of Europe’s new Cold War reality.
With his remarks, Biden acknowledged that, solely as a consequence of the ruthless aggression of Vladimir Putin, Europe was once again divided. More broadly, he defined the struggle of the moment as “a new great battle for freedom: a battle between democracy and autocracy, between liberty and repression, between rules-based order and one governed by brute force.”
Biden’s remarks to the massive outdoor crowd were a call to action not just to stop Putin but, as American listeners surely noted, to recognize the threats to democracy that exist within our own country. He not only praised the courage of the people of Ukraine but made it clear that they were fighting on behalf of all of us who value democracy worldwide. He enumerated the ways that the U.S. and our allies would seek to aid Ukraine but he also made it clear that our commitment extended beyond the current war. “We must commit now to be in this fight for the long haul. We must remain unified today and tomorrow and the day after and for the years and decades to come,” he said.
Then, he added, “It will not be easy. There will be costs. But it’s a price we have to pay. Because the darkness that drives autocracy is ultimately no match for the flame of liberty that lights the souls of free people everywhere.”
The speech marked a historical watershed that should not be overshadowed by his apparently extemporaneous reference to Putin at its conclusion, “For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power.” While controversy swirled around the remark, and the White House later sought to walk it back, that moment of clarity from the plain-spoken president elevated his speech. It made it clear that Biden’s passion was deeply felt and real. It was the truth at a time when it is essential to be honest about Putin’s barbarism and the threat he poses not just to the world, but to the people of his own country who will be denied full access to the community of nations so long as he remains in office.
While Biden’s speech was significant because it addressed a geopolitical shift with long-term consequences for the world—and while it clarified the starkness of the divide in America between Biden’s party and his opponents who have defended Putin and attacked democracy themselves—it also underscored the president’s deep sense of urgency concerning the crisis in Ukraine.
The war that has been raging for over a month now since Putin’s armies sought to compound the brutality of their 2015 invasion of Eastern Ukraine with a new wave of atrocities, has reached a point of inflection. Putin’s armies are not only facing stiff resistance but outside of Kyiv and in the East of Ukraine, they are actually being pushed back. Russian losses are now, according to estimates, likely to already be higher than all those suffered in Russia’s decade-long Afghanistan debacle. Ukraine has put up an extraordinary fight and if one thing is now clear it is that the easy path to victory that Putin and some analysts thought existed was an illusion.
Since it is unlikely that Putin can sustain a protracted conflict in Ukraine, two possibilities remain. Either Putin escalates the war in dramatic fashion or he finds a way to withdraw while saving face.
The first option could be linked to Russia’s explicit and implicit threats of the use of WMDs. Putin might think that such an approach could rattle the leaders of Ukraine and the West. But, Biden and European leaders have made it clear that if Putin takes such a step the response would be swift and severe. Within the US government, many options are on the table including a kinetic response from Western militaries, providing Ukraine with new weapons systems including longer-range missiles, and much more severe sanctions including, possibly, a greater willingness by Europeans in the wake of such an escalation to finally cut off purchases of Russian oil and gas.
For all these reasons, while this sort of escalation is a possibility Western planners take very seriously, it may also be one that Russia recognizes would only deepen their problems associated with their invasion of Ukraine. That may be why, in the past week, Russian military spokespeople have spoken of a shift in Russian priorities away from broader objectives to consolidating their holdings in Eastern Ukraine such as the Donbas, Luhansk and Crimea.
While there are few less reliable sources than the Russian government these days, there is not only a logic to such a step, but seeking to solidify control over those regions is rumored to be one of the subjects of peace talks that have sporadically and unsuccessfully taken place thus far.
Ukraine’s President Zelenskyy has indicated he would oppose ceding any land to Russia. He has also, however, exhibited a desire to end the carnage. In the end, U.S. officials have make it clear that the final terms for the war in Ukraine will be left entirely up to the government in Kyiv. While there is no current indication a ceasefire is on the horizon, the only “reasonable” path for Putin other than escalation is to seek such a settlement and so how it would be implemented must be considered.
Should Ukraine agree to Russian control of those regions or temporary control of those regions being ceded to pro-Russian Ukrainian groups prior to some kind of internationally supervised referendum on their future, the question then would be what would become of the rest of Ukraine—particularly if a settlement also includes an agreement that it would not join NATO. How, following the full Russian withdrawal that any ceasefire would require, would the security and future of Ukraine be assured—especially given the huge job and related costs of rebuilding the country, a job one U.S. official characterized to me as “the most costly rebuilding job the world has faced since World War II.”
The need for such a massive rebuilding effort might provide a glimpse of how the security issue could be resolved. Ukraine could join the EU and effectively become a “virtual” member of NATO. Foreign companies working with international financial institutions (and, one hopes, with funds derived in some way or another from Russia as reparations) might play a big role in the rebuilding of Ukraine. Should they do so, the active and long-term presence of many workers from around the world in Ukraine might act as a kind of shield against a future Russian attack while also fueling Ukrainian economic growth and fostering deeper ties between that country and the world economy.
Rebuilding Ukraine and integrating it economically and socially into Europe would be not only a good way to begin to heal that country but also to ensure its greater security. Showing how it benefits from that integration while Russia remains subject to post-war sanctions is a way to send a message to the Russian people that their leadership chose to be on the wrong side of history.
Taken together, both would serve the longer term goals outlined in Biden’s speech—marking a victory for democracy and a defeat for a dictator while sending an unmistakable message that the West is ready to fight as Ukraine did to defend our values and our people against the attacks of men like Putin. Men who, as President Biden said, really must go.