In Poland, Biden aims to pushback on Putin blaming the West for Ukraine war

WARSAW — More than anything he might say in his speech today, Joe Biden demonstrated a personal commitment to Ukraine’s survival when he slipped into the war zone unannounced Monday and put his own safety at risk.

A presidential speech matters, though, and Biden’s will celebrate the resilience of a small, democratic state facing a bigger autocracy bent on expansion, administration officials said.

Speaking in the gardens of the Royal Castle in Warsaw, Biden will also proclaim that as the war enters its second year the U.S. and its allies remain united in their support for Ukraine’s effort to beat back the Russian invasion.

“His remarks will speak specifically to the conflict in Ukraine, but they will also speak to the larger contest between those aggressors who are trying to destroy fundamental principles and those democracies who are pulling together to try to uphold them,” said Jake Sullivan, the White House’s national security adviser, in a conference call with reporters Tuesday. “You will hear in this speech vintage Joe Biden. The president has believed passionately in the themes he will discuss tonight for decades.”

The speech went through many drafts before reaching its final form, an administration official said. Biden and Sullivan were photographed working on the text as they sat in in a train car Monday, riding out of Ukraine and into the secure confines of a neighboring Nato country, Poland.

A running thread will be the inability of Russian President Vladimir Putin, the architect of the invasion, to reach any of his goals since the war began, administration officials said. Biden will note that Putin didn’t capture Kyiv, topple Ukrainian president Volodymr Zelenskyy, divide the West or fracture the NATO military alliance.

“You can expect to hear Mr. Putin by name many times in the speech tonight,” the administration official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the draft.

While not exactly a split-screen moment, Putin gave an address of his own Tuesday morning, blaming the West for provoking the war. He did not mention Biden by name. “They started the war and we are using force to stop it,” Putin said. He called for Russia to suspend participation in the START Treaty, the nuclear weapons agreement between the two nations.

Ahead of Biden’s remarks, Vice President Kamala Harris previewed the administration’s case against Putin in a speech at the Munich Security Conference in Germany.

There, Harris said that Russia had committed “crimes against humanity” and sent Putin a stark warning. “I say to all those who have perpetrated these crimes and to their superiors who are complicit in these crimes: You will be held to account,” Harris said.

Russian forces have struck a maternity hospital in Ukraine and have murdered, tortured, deported and raped civilians in carrying out the war, she said.

“The vice president’s speech was on its own a powerful message heading into an anniversary week about how important it is to stay united about calling out Russia for what they’ve done and they need to be held to account,” the administration official said. “You will see the president expand on that message.”

Biden will also deliver a direct rebuttal to Putin’s claim that the West instigated the conflict. He’ll reiterate a point that the White House has been making for months: If Russia stops fighting, the war will end; if Ukraine stops fighting, it will vanish as a sovereign country.

“That tells you everything you need to know about who is responsible for this war,” Sullivan said. “This was a war of choice. Putin chose to fight it. He could have chosen not to and he can choose even now to end it, to go home. No one is attacking Russia. There’s an absurdity to the notion that Russia was under some kind of military threat from Ukraine or anyone else.”

The centerpiece of Biden’s three-day trip to the region was his surprise appearance in Kyiv, where he met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and plotted out the next phase of the war.

What made the visit all the more extraordinary was the comparative lack of security for America’s commander-in-chief. When president’s visit war theaters, they normally go to places under the control of U.S. troops. But no American forces are stationed in Ukraine, leaving Biden more exposed.

Ahead of Biden’s arrival in Kyiv, the U.S. gave Russia a heads-up that he’d be coming to avoid any misunderstanding about what the Russians “would be seeing,” Sullivan said. Russia acknowledged receipt of the message but gave no other response, he said.

For all the attention paid to Biden’s foray into Ukraine, his speech could prove historic as the world confront a 21st century iteration of the Cold War, this time between democratic and authoritarian states.

He caused an uproar last year when he spoke in Poland and ad libbed a line that suggested he wanted to see Putin deposed: “For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power,” he said.

The White House quickly walked back the comment.

This time, the signs point to Biden hewing closely to the final text.

“The president understands that this is a singular moment and he’s going to take advantage of it,” the administration official said.

One audience Biden needs to reach is back home. Polling shows that Americans still largely support Ukraine’s fight, but are less willing to send money and weapons.

“Part of this speech is to an American audience,” said Daniel Fried, a former U.S. ambassador to Poland. “Why do we care? We care about Ukraine for the same reason we cared about Europe during World War II. We don’t want dictators rampaging around.”

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