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Fight for survival
Biden and Putin

Fight for survival

Biden and Putin both implicitly tie their futures to the outcome in Ukraine

WASHINGTON/MOSCOW: In their speeches, Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin could not have been further apart in their interpretations of the past year, its culprits, causes, and consequence. But in one aspect they were agreed: this is a war intended to remain on the territory of Ukraine, but is being elevated into something far wider – a battle of survival between the west and Russia. Both men also implicitly tied their own futures to the outcome of this war, saying their opponent was bound to lose.

While both men avoided setting out the specifics of what victory would constitute, or how the battle was faring on the frontlines, Putin said the war was about Russia’s right to exist, and Biden said it was a battle for freedom, a word he ultimately chose more often in his speech than democracy.

The White House said it was never the intention to put Biden into a machismo “eve of offensives” head to head, but that Putin instead had brought forward his speech when he realised Biiden would speak in Warsaw.

The contrast in settings, format and sequencing probably aided Biden, even if the US president failed to quite reach the oratorical heights the historic moment deserved. The only drama that came close to the Reagan demand in Berlin in 1987 to “tear down this wall” was when Biden claimed “Every day that the war goes on is his choice. He could end the war with one word. It’s easy.”


But Biden, by going second, at least had the chance to rebut Putin’s absurd claim that the war had been started by the west. He said the west had never been plotting to attack Russia. “This was a war of choice, not necessity”, started by one man, he said.

Biden also had the advantage of the symbolism of the venue. The Kubicki Arcades are in Warsaw Old Town. The US team said the Old Town, like all of Warsaw, was tragically destroyed during the second world war, and rebuilt from the ashes. This symbolism of rebuilding from ashes has a profound forerunner of what the west wishes to resurrect in Ukraine.

The White House was not averse to a bit of war time glitz. Biden jumped on stage to Freedom by the Norwegian DJ Kygo and left to Coldplay’s Sky Full of Stars.

The substance of his speech lay in his insistence that the west had been tested, and had chosen not to look away. As a result, autocrats had grown weaker, not stronger, and “Ukraine will never, ever become a victory for Russia,” he said.

And though Biden accused Putin of abhorrent crimes against humanity, he did not repeat his error last time he was in Warsaw, when he said this man could not remain in power. With the anniversary of this war so close to that of the Iraq war, regime change did not pass his lips.

By contrast, Putin, in his two-hour soporific State of the Union address, placed less emphasis on universal values and more on Russia’s interests and own security. Yes, there was a typical attack on the collapse of western family values, led it seemed by the archbishop of Canterbury, but this was not a speech appealing to the non-aligned movement against western values and imperialism, more a glorification of Russian agricultural production figures.


Sam Greene, a professor of Russian politics at King’s College London, has previously said Putin’s speeches are normally not designed to be informative, but to achieve three goals: provide rhetorical room for manoeuvre, galvanise domestic audiences and disorientate foreign audiences.

He argues the speech fit this mould. It justified starting and continuing the war without specifying specific strategic arms, save occasionally the protection of Donetsk. The capture of the whole of Ukraine, a county that had apparently fallen under the control of undemocratic western elites, was not explicitly mentioned.

It stoked an amorphous existential fear among Russians about Nato’s threat to the country’s very existence, and how the west uses the language of liberal democracy to cloak totalitarian values.

Finally, it tried to make the west worry vaguely about nuclear arms control by suspending Russia’s membership of New Start. It tried, as did Biden, to convince his enemy that he was in for the long haul, since the Russian economy cannot merely survive despite sanctions, but flourish as a more self-sufficient entity based on small and medium sized enterprise, and new export markets.

He pointed to a lower-than-expected fall in growth, but ignored the growing budget deficit caused by higher defence spending, and lower energy revenues. The scale of the deficit given the reduced level of reserves could be a problem soon. His offer to the families of the conscripted fallen was hardly lavish: a national foundation that would ensure every bereaved family would have a one-stop shop social worker. He called on the country’s super-rich to invest domestically and hinted at being lenient towards those Russian opponents of the war and emigrants. Much of this seems a fantasy given the treatment of political prisoners in Russia.

Even his New Start suspension is an illusion, since no suspension clause is contained in the treaty and Putin is in no position to start a nuclear arms race with the US. But it is the last piece of nuclear security architecture, and so provides some leverage over Washington and will keep the nuclear threat bubbling.


But in the end this was about one speech full of lies, darkness, self-pitying isolation, and another about universal values, optimism and the values of alliances.

Courtesy: The Guardian


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