The contrast could not have been more stark — or the timing more striking.
In dueling presidential speeches Tuesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin defended his war in Ukraine and fiercely attacked the West just hours before President Biden, fresh from a surprise visit to Kyiv, denounced Russian aggression and told an audience of thousands in front of the Royal Castle in Warsaw, Poland, that Mr. Putin’s war of choice in Ukraine “will never be a victory for Russia.”
The back-to-back addresses dramatically illustrated the deep chasm separating Russia and the West as the war in Ukraine nears the one-year mark this week. The chasm grew deeper when Mr. Putin announced in his nationally televised address that he was suspending the last remaining major arms control deal with the U.S., with both sides accusing the other of bad faith.
The determination that both leaders expressed could not entirely mask the fact that Mr. Putin and Mr. Biden are dealing with rising skepticism domestically as the conflict grinds on with no end in sight.
In Warsaw, Mr. Biden framed the war as a test of the world’s democracies to stand up to autocratic strongmen. He repeatedly blasted the Russian president by name and accused Moscow of committing crimes against humanity “without shame.”
“There will continue to be hard and very bitter days, victories and tragedies,” he said. “But Ukraine is steeled for the fight ahead, and the United States, together with our allies and partners, are going to continue to have Ukraine’s back as it defends itself.”
Mr. Putin’s angry and grievance-filled speech cast Russia as a victim of double-dealing by the West, which he said manipulated events to provoke war. In one minimal sign of restraint, Mr. Putin did not mention Mr. Biden directly and spent much of the address — a delayed version of his annual state of the nation speech — on domestic issues.
The two men agreed on one thing: The war is about something larger than Ukraine and its outcome will profoundly affect the international order.
“We aren’t fighting the Ukrainian people,” Mr. Putin said in a nearly two-hour address. “The Ukrainian people have become hostages of the Kyiv regime and its Western masters, who have effectively occupied the country.”
He said the invasion was justified to protect ethnic Russians living in the disputed Donbas territory and to ensure Russian territorial security. Mr. Putin also repeated his widely discredited claim that neo-Nazis were running the government in Ukraine.
Mr. Biden took a much more personal line of attack. He condemned his Russian counterpart as an autocratic strongman and a brutal dictator bent on crushing the human spirit. He said Mr. Putin and his generals badly misjudged how the war would play out and the Ukrainian resistance marked a triumph of democracy over autocracy.
“President Putin’s craven lust for land and power will fail. And the Ukrainian people’s love for their country will prevail. Democracies in the world will stand guard over freedom today, tomorrow and forever. For that’s what’s at stake here: freedom,” Mr. Biden said in front of the Polish Presidential Palace. He was greeted by repeated applause from an audience holding Ukrainian, Polish and U.S. flags.
Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov, in remarks to an event hosted by the Hudson Institute, echoed Mr. Biden’s argument that the outcome of the war in his country will have reverberations far beyond the region.
“Unless the enemy is defeated in Ukraine, the conflict will spread. The whole world is watching closely to see the consequences of this war,” he said. “If there is any indication that the tactic of armed aggression against a sovereign state works, military threats around the globe will increase.”
Perhaps the most significant outcome of the clashing visions was Mr. Putin’s announcement that Russia would stop participating in New START, the last nuclear arms control pact in force between Moscow and Washington. Mr. Biden extended the 2010 deal for another five years shortly after taking office in 2021, but his arms control agenda was frustrated by the deteriorating relationship with Russia and China, a rising nuclear power.
New START established limits on U.S. and Russian nuclear arms stockpiles and calls for broad inspections of nuclear sites and other stipulations on the proliferation of such weapons.
Mr. Putin said Russia isn’t withdrawing from the pact but is suspending its participation. Hours after the address, the Russian Foreign Ministry said Moscow would respect the treaty’s cap on nuclear weapons and continue to exchange information about test launches with the U.S.
Mr. Biden did not address the announcement in his remarks, but Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters that the decision was “really unfortunate and very irresponsible.” He said the U.S. will be watching closely and that avoiding another nuclear arms race remains an administration priority.
“We remain ready to talk about strategic arms limitations at any time with Russia irrespective of anything else going on in the world or in our relationship,” Mr. Blinken told reporters while on a trip to Greece. “I think it matters that we continue to act responsibly in this area. It’s also something the rest of the world expects of us.”
Accident of timing
Although the back-to-back speeches presented a startling tableau, White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan insisted that Mr. Biden’s speech should not be viewed as a response to Mr. Putin. He said the date and time were selected to coincide with the anniversary of the war.
“We did not set the speech up as some kind of head-to-head. This is not a rhetorical contest with anyone else,” Mr. Sullivan said. “This is an affirmative statement of values.”
Still, Mr. Biden sought to showcase a clear message of resolve and unity for Ukraine against Russian aggression and called on allies to remain united in the war effort.
“One year ago, the world was bracing for the fall of Kyiv,” Mr. Biden said. “Well, I have just come from a visit to Kyiv, and I can report that Kyiv stands strong. Kyiv stands proud. It stands tall. And, most importantly, it stands free.
“When President Putin ordered his tanks to roll in Ukraine, he thought we would roll over. He was wrong. The Ukrainian people are too brave. America, Europe and a coalition of nations from the Atlantic to the Pacific were too unified. Democracy was too strong,” Mr. Biden said.
He aimed to further isolate Mr. Putin and galvanize efforts to hold members of his government accountable through international courts and sanctions. He announced that more sanctions would be imposed this week against Mr. Putin and his regime, but he offered few details.
Mr. Biden directly addressed Mr. Putin’s repeated claim that decades of NATO expansion and Kyiv’s recent moves against pro-Kremlin separatists in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region were the real cause of the war.
“The West was not plotting to attack Russia,” Mr. Biden said. “This war was never a necessity; it’s a tragedy. President Putin chose this war. Every day the war continues is his choice.”
Mr. Biden also ticked off a list of Russian tactics that he said amounted to crimes against humanity, including targeting civilians, using rape as a “weapon of war,” and bombing maternity hospitals, orphanages and schools.
“This has been an extraordinary year in every sense. Extraordinary brutality from Russian forces and mercenaries. They’ve committed depravities, crimes against humanity without shame or compunction,” he said.
Western nations, he said, will seek justice for the crimes.
While in Warsaw, Mr. Biden met with Moldovan President Maia Sandu — who last week said Moscow was behind a plot to overthrow her government with external saboteurs — and with his host, Polish President Andrzej Duda, The Associated Press reported, again stressing the larger fight that the Russia-Ukraine war symbolizes.
“We have to have security in Europe,” Biden said at the presidential palace. “It’s that basic, that simple, that consequential.”
Mr. Putin insisted that Russia was under a threat from what he described as corrupt Western values. By standing up to the West, he said, Russia is standing up not just for its national sovereignty but also for moral and cultural values.
“The West declares that perversions, including pedophilia, are part of the norm, destroys its values, calls on priests to bless same-sex marriages,” he said.
Mr. Putin said Western nations are using corrupt values to distract attention away from “corruption scandals and economic-social problems.”
Facing sanctions and diplomatic isolation from the U.S. and its allies in Europe and Asia, Mr. Putin could boast at least one significant friend: top Chinese diplomat Wang Yi, who was making a high-profile visit to Moscow this week.
U.S. officials this week warned China against offering military aid in support of Russia’s war in Ukraine. China has backed Russia rhetorically, and The Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday that Chinese President Xi Jinping is planning a trip to Russia in the coming months.
The dueling speeches concluded a two-day trip to Europe for Mr. Biden to mark the anniversary of the Russian invasion. Mr. Biden told Mr. Duda that Poland has been a crucial partner in keeping military and financial aid flowing into Ukraine and in accepting more than 1 million refugees from the war-ravaged country.
Mr. Biden’s surprise visit to Kyiv on Monday marked the first time an American president had entered a war zone with no active U.S. military presence. He met with Mr. Zelenskyy and toured the streets of Kyiv.
• This article is based in part on wire service reports.