Biden in Kyiv and Warsaw Is a Reminder of Who Really Leads Europe

REUTERS/Evelyn Hockstein
U.S. President Joe Biden delivers remarks ahead of the one year anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, outside the Royal Castle, in Warsaw, Poland, February 21, 2023.

It was a surprise visit long in the works. In the year since Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, President Biden has seen a stream of his Western counterparts trot through Kyiv, Ukraine, in shows of solidarity and support. But the complex security protocols surrounding an American president in an active war zone and fears over escalating conflict with the Kremlin made it difficult for Biden to make the trip – that is, until Monday.

In a week that will mark the grim anniversary of Russia’s Feb. 24 onslaught, Biden went to Kyiv and met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Donning his trademark aviators, he walked the Ukrainian capital’s streets as air raid sirens blared in the background. He toured the city’s iconic St. Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery and paid respect to the casualties. Biden also made more substantive gestures – touting a new half-billion dollar tranche of military aid, the latest installment in a massive outflow of U.S. support. Biden pledged his “unflagging commitment to Ukraine’s democracy, sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

“When [Russian President Vladimir] Putin launched his invasion nearly one year ago, he thought Ukraine was weak and the West was divided. He thought he could outlast us,” Biden said in a statement issued by the White House after his arrival. “But he was dead wrong.”

On Tuesday, Biden is making his second trip in a year to the Polish capital. He’s slated to give a hotly anticipated speech from Warsaw’s Royal Castle where he will reiterate how the United States under his leadership galvanized much of the West and NATO in defense of Ukraine, a solidarity that he and other officials within the transatlantic alliance insist will endure. The address is set to take place the same day as a parallel speech from Putin to Russia’s Federal Assembly. Biden’s remarks “will be of world dimension,” Polish President Andrzej Duda said over the weekend.

Analysts and commentators pointed to the inescapable symbolism of Biden strolling around Kyiv. The right-wing National Review praised Biden for his “guts” to venture into an active war zone in range of Russian strikes. “Americans are allowed to disagree in good faith about what comes next … but no one should be under any illusion about the power of an American president going into a warzone to extend a hand to a beleaguered people and offer ‘unwavering support,'” the publication noted.

Biden is far from the first Western leader to call on Zelensky, but the occupant of the White House carries a different weight, argued Eliot Cohen, a former George W. Bush administration official and professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. “While the president clearly intended to bolster the confidence of Ukraine, and the commitment of ambivalent Europeans and neo-isolationist Americans, his real audiences lay elsewhere, as his remarks about Western strength indicated,” he wrote.

“Russia has cycled through a series of theories of victory in Ukraine – that Kyiv’s leaders would flee, that Ukraine’s population would not fight, that its army would be crumpled up by a sudden blitz or by grinding assaults,” Cohen went on. “It has been reduced to one last hope: that Vladimir Putin’s will is stronger than Joe Biden’s. And Biden just said, by deed as well as word, ‘Oh no it’s not.'” He added that Biden’s appearance was a “gut punch” to Putin.

The coming months will dictate how much of a blow it truly was for the Russian leader. Ukraine will endure likely spring offensives and counteroffensives; no matter the toll it has taken on the Kremlin, the shape of the war remains unclear. It’s far from certain that public opinion in Western countries behind backing Ukraine seemingly indefinitely will hold, no matter the bravado and show of unity put forward by their governments.

What is clearer is the centrality of the United States – and in particular, of the Biden administration – in leading Europe’s defense. The years before the Russian invasion saw much hand-wringing over the need for European “strategic autonomy” as the United States turns either more inward or toward Asia or both. The Munich Security Conference in 2020 agonized over an age of “Westlessness,” a neologism that captured a sense of uncertainty and lack of coherence of what the West represented or stood for.

Then Putin made his move on Feb. 24, and the United States responded in careful but emphatic fashion: It surged support to Ukraine while coordinating and driving the transatlantic response. European ambassadors in Washington routinely sing Biden’s praises on this front, suggesting that the scale and efficacy of the Western effort to help Ukraine would have been hard to replicate without such a dyed-in-the-wool Atlanticist leading the way.

“The West is now unified in its aims,” wrote Richard Fontaine, chief executive officer of the Center for a New American Security, from this weekend’s conference in Munich. “Long gone are debates over Iraq and Afghanistan, charges of American unilateralism, and criticism of European quiescence,” Fontaine added. “No one harangued allies about free-riding or pointed out their failure to spend two percent of GDP on defense.”

That’s thanks in part to the sense of determination in Washington, where the space for debate on support for Ukraine remains curiously narrow, though dissenting voices, especially on the right, are getting louder. “We should be grateful every day that the last Atlanticist is in the Oval Office right now, but we shouldn’t take it for granted,” Thorsten Benner, director of the Global Public Policy Institute in Berlin, said to the Wall Street Journal. “The outsized investment in European security right now by the U.S. administration will be an exception.”

At the same time, the primacy of the American role in all this has cast into shadow the more meager efforts of France and Germany, two nations that style themselves as continental leaders. “As always, America has set the pace when things actually mattered,” Peter Neumann, professor of security studies at King’s College London, told me. “For European policymakers, this year has been a humbling experience. Despite years of talk about ‘strategic autonomy,’ endless conferences and think tank reports, the reality is: We only ever get our act together if and when America leads.”

Neumann recently told an Austrian newspaper that, had Ukraine only been able to depend on Europe, it would already be Russian.