Kennedy and then Reagan in Berlin. Now Biden in Kyiv.
For the last sixty years, American presidents have routinely stood on the eastern edge of Europe and looked to Russia to say, “We stand by our allies. Our resolve is unshakable.”
Kennedy said: “I am a Berliner”. Reagan said, “Mr. Gorbachev is tearing down this wall.” During his surprise visit to Kiev on President’s Day, Biden said: “One year later, Kiev is standing. And Ukrainian strands. Democracy stands.”
Just days before the one-year anniversary of Russia’s brutal offensive against Ukraine, Biden shook the streets of Kiev, paying his respects to those who fell defending Ukraine and saying, “Freedom is priceless.” It’s worth fighting for while it lasts.”
Biden also movingly cited the conversation he had with Zelenskyy last February as Russia’s massive escalation of its nine-year unprovoked war of aggression against Ukraine. He recalled, with Zelensky at his side, “You said you didn’t know when we could speak again. On that dark night…the world was literally preparing for the fall of Kiev…maybe even the end of Ukraine.”
Of course, the symbolism of the American President, standing next to Zelenskyy and walking through the Ukrainian capital while air raid sirens sounded, also carried many other messages.
For those fighting for Ukraine, it was an extremely important message of solidarity, which came alongside further pledges by Biden to provide military support to Ukraine.
For Vladimir Putin, it was Biden’s way of saying, “I’m here in Kyiv and you’re not. Not only did you not take Kiev in days, as some have predicted, but your attack was repelled. Your army suffered a humiliating defeat from which it has not recovered.”
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and US President Joe Biden walk amid the Russian attack on Ukraine at the Mariinskyi Palace in Kyiv, Ukraine, on February 20, 2023.
Press service of the President of Ukraine via Portal
Biden emphasized this point in the White House’s official statement on the trip: “Putin thought Ukraine was weak and the West divided. He thought he could outlive us. But he was absolutely wrong.” Importantly, this remark was underscored in recent days by the eminent congressional delegation attending the Munich Security Conference to make it clear that US support for Ukraine is declining remains strong and non-partisan.
The official White House statement also underscored that Biden’s surprise visit to Ukraine was part of a larger mission, one of solidarity and leadership among America’s European allies. Biden said in the statement, “I also look forward to traveling to Poland to meet President Duda and the leaders of our Eastern Flank allies and make remarks on how the United States will continue to call the world in support of the people.” of Ukraine and the fundamental values of human rights and human dignity in the UN Charter, which unites us worldwide.”
The reference to the UN Charter and Biden’s visit also supported statements made by Foreign Minister Blinken after talks with his Chinese counterpart on the sidelines of the Munich conference. Blinken said China was considering “providing deadly support” to Russia to help it invade Ukraine, warning that doing so would have serious consequences.
Biden’s trip was an important reminder to Beijing of how high Ukraine’s priority is for the US and the West, and portraying the war in the context of Russia’s violations of international law will make it clear to the Chinese that direct support for Russia’s attack and serial war crimes would mean China is an accomplice to these crimes. The sanctions China would endure and the rift such a move would create with the international community would be devastating for China, especially given the current fragility of its economy.
Of course, if there was another audience for Biden’s trip, it was the American people. Going to Kiev, Biden recalled as clearly as possible his stance against Russian aggression from the first moments of his presidency. It showed that he had no hesitation in supporting Ukraine when it was threatened and that his leadership among our allies around the world was one of the outstanding triumphs of his first term.
“Biden’s trip was an important reminder to Beijing of how high the priority of Ukraine is for the US and the West”
NATO, recently helpless and doubted by other US political leaders, was stronger than ever and poised on the brink of expansion. America’s international leadership, recently called into question, was once again beyond reproach.
With this message, Biden, without giving his name, invoked another American president on a visit to the eastern fringes of Europe: Donald Trump during his 2018 meeting in Helsinki with President Vladimir Putin. Biden traveled to Europe to deliver a message of American and Allied strength to Putin. Trump crawled before Putin. Biden stood up for American values and our allies. Trump said he trusts Putin more than American intelligence and law enforcement agencies. Biden embodied America’s strength. Trump illustrated and represented our greatest weakness.
A year after Trump embarrassed the country in Helsinki, he compounded the offense by withholding aid from Ukraine to blackmail Zelensky into doing political dirty work against Biden to aid Trump’s re-election efforts. It was an illegal act that ultimately led to Trump’s first impeachment. At the same time, and throughout the following year, he actively advocated for the withdrawal of American troops from Europe, according to reports from Trump’s own top advisers.
There is no doubt that had Trump been re-elected, today we would see an American President standing alongside his Russian counterpart, not Zelensky, marking the West’s weakening, not its enduring strength. Perhaps that prospect, feeling America weak and divided and uncaring about Ukraine, not leading the fight to preserve democracy, emboldened Putin in his ill-fated, hugely costly, and deeply ill-considered invasion last February. It seems likely that it had an effect that led to this catastrophic miscalculation.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and US President Joe Biden walk in front of the Mariinskyi Palace in Kyiv, Ukraine on February 20, 2023 amid the Russian attack on Ukraine.
Press service of the President of Ukraine via Portal
We can’t know. But what we do know today is that thanks to the determination of Biden and the West, and the inspiring courage and resilience of the people of Ukraine and that strong country, the Russian army has been weakened, exhausted and exposed as deeply dysfunctional.
Nor can we know what challenges the next phases of this war are likely to present. But thanks to Biden’s visit today, it’s crystal clear that Ukraine will not face them alone, and that Ukraine’s enemies and her current and potential allies should never again underestimate the determination of the United States and NATO to do what they have been doing for decades , since the journey of Kennedy and Reagan, to defend our values, our democracies and the security of an international legal order by all means.