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Putin, Biden face off over Ukraine with dueling speeches

President Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin faced off on the global stage Tuesday with dramatic speeches from Europe that framed the war in Ukraine as the battle for the future of world order with both men committing to a long fight ahead.

Biden positioned himself as close to Putin’s border as he’s gotten since the war began one year ago with a surprise visit this week to Kyiv and later to a planned stop in Warsaw to reiterate a forceful message that Moscow’s military campaign in Ukraine is destined to fail.

He painted Putin as an isolated autocrat whose war only forged bonds among nations seeking to help Ukraine as well as someone who sought to “weaponize” energy only to be met with efforts to wean Europe off Russian fossil fuels.

“When President Putin ordered his tanks to roll into Ukraine, he thought we would roll over. He was wrong,” Biden said.

“Instead of an easy victory he perceived and predicted, Putin left with burnt-out tanks and Russia’s forces in disarray.”

Biden’s address provided a sharp contrast to remarks Putin gave hours earlier that marked his annual state of the nation address and before an austere crowd of, largely, the country’s political and military elite.

Biden delivered his speech in front of a cheering crowd outside the Polish Presidential Palace in Warsaw following a bilateral meeting with Polish President Andrzej Duda.

Putin’s remarks, in comparison, rehashed long-held grievances against the US, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the government in Kyiv.

“Let me reiterate that they were the ones who started this war, while we used force and are using it to stop the war,” he said in remarks to the Federal Assembly, the country’s legislature.

While having rattled the saber for months, Putin raised further the prospect of nuclear escalation by announcing a suspension of Russia’s participation in the New START nuclear arms treaty with Washington, which is set to expire in 2026.

Russian officials were quick to clarify that Moscow was not abandoning the treaty, but its obstruction of treaty mechanisms and delay for follow-on talks is raising the risk of a new nuclear arms race.

“It’s unclear what suspension means,” said Daniel Hamilton, nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Center on the United States and Europe. “Would the Russians try to use that time to contravene the agreement? Or is it more of a political signal that [Putin’s] grumpy.”

Russia watchers also pointed to what Putin left out of his speech, with rumors of a second military mobilization, shift to a war-time economy or border closures circulating ahead of his remarks but left out of the delivered speech.

“I see President Putin as a guy who is stuck and who has also run out of ideas,” said John Herbst, senior director of the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center and a former ambassador to Ukraine.

“There was a great deal of speculation regarding the speech, especially because he tied it to preempt Biden’s Warsaw address, which has been on the books for weeks. We saw no real new path in this speech. It was old, it was tired.”

In attendance for Biden’s speech on Tuesday were thousands of people, including Polish citizens, Ukrainian refugees, Polish officials, and military leaders, many of whom waved Ukrainian, US, and Polish flags and applauded along with the president.

Biden leaned directly into Putin during his remarks, mentioning the Russian president by name several times, declaring that Putin is a dictator and autocrat who questioned the unity of NATO and the west when tanks first rolled into Ukraine. Biden also pushed back specifically on the notion by Putin that it was Russia that was being attacked.

He said that Putin’s “craven lust for land and power” had only served to unite democracies around the world. And, he made it clear Putin was responsible for the war in Ukraine but was adamant that the US and its allies in Europe would not waver in their support for Ukraine.

“The West was not plotting to attack Russia, as Putin said today. And millions of Russian citizens who only want to live in peace with their neighbors are not the enemy,” Biden said. “This war was never a necessity; it’s a tragedy.”

Biden contrasted Putin with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who he met in person on his trip to Kyiv the day before.

“He found himself at war with a nation led by a man whose courage would be forged in fire and steel, President Zelensky.” Biden said. “President Putin is confronted with something today that he didn’t think was possible a year ago. The democracies of the world have grown stronger, not weaker. But the autocrats of the world have grown weaker, not stronger.”

Beth Knobel, a former Moscow bureau chief for CBS and associate professor at Fordham University in New York, said Biden’s attacks against Putin as “weak” were an obvious inclusion to his speech.

“These two men don’t have a lot of common ground right now. They have to represent the views of their nations and the situation is pretty black and white, that Putin launched an unnecessary war on a neighboring country and his actions violate everything that President Biden believes and that our country believes.”

Putin, meanwhile, did not mention Zelensky or Biden by name in his remarks, but reiterated the narrative that the “special military operation” in Ukraine is an existential fight to fend off an expanding West, led by the US and NATO, with its Kyiv proxy battleground.

“Putin has been on an anti-Western tirade for a long time, his speech today was like the greatest hits of Putin’s anti-Western tirades all put together,” Knoble continued.

Putin further reiterated his claim that Ukraine is historic Russian territory – part of his revanchist aims to rebuild the Soviet Union, refusing to acknowledge the country as an independent state with a distinct national identity and culture.

Knoble said Putin’s remarks reflected “his own vision of the world that, to me, does not really line up with reality. Putin’s vision of the world is that Russia is under attack, that Russia is perfect and that Russia is a peace maker and that it has been forced to defend itself against an aggressive West that has no respect for Russia.”

Putin spoke in Moscow on what marked the one-year anniversary of his announcement to recognize the Russian-occupied territories of Ukraine, Donetsk and Luhansk, as independent states and that served as the prelude to the wider Russian invasion that began in the early-morning hours of Feb. 24.

Biden, in his speech, underlined that Putin has not backed down from his ultimate goal of decapitating the government in Kyiv and subsuming the country in a revival of the Soviet Union and that also includes his treatment of neighboring Belarus as a proxy state, and allegations that Russian forces are working to overthrow the pro-European government in Moldova, also a former Soviet state.

“One year into this war, Putin no longer doubts the strength of our coalition. But he still doubts our conviction. He doubts our staying power. He doubts our continued support for Ukraine. He doubts whether NATO can remain unified,” the president said.

“But there should be no doubt: Our support for Ukraine will not waver, NATO will not be divided and we will not tire.”

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