The contrast between the two presidents could hardly be starker. One is dwelling in his own dream palace, indulging fantasies about a return to superpower status while transforming his dismal fiefdom into a larger North Korea. The other is on a roll, creating a new grand alliance to prevent his foe from claiming suzerainty over Ukraine and engaging in further territorial predation.
In his state of the nation address on Tuesday, Vladimir Putin served up his usual nauseating soup of anti-Western conspiracy theories, complete with references to Ukraine’s “neo-Nazi regime” and a Western “totalitarian” mission. If anyone knows anything about totalitarian impulses, it’s Putin himself. His only concession to reality was to refer to a “war” once, claiming that Western elites were “the ones who started the war.” Nothing could be further from the truth.
Putin wanted to be a great dictator, or at least a new Peter the Great. He was warned by Joe Biden not to invade Ukraine and shrugged his shoulders. Now he’s tensing them as Ukraine has become a fiasco, the graveyard of his imperial dreams. He talked big — “one circumstance should be clear to everyone — the more long-range Western systems come to Ukraine, the further we will be forced to push the threat away from our borders” — but he never spoke about the dreadful losses that Russia has experienced over the past year. Instead, he snarled that Russia would suspend its participation in the New START nuclear nonproliferation agreement, a move that further symbolizes his retreat into isolation.
Biden was ebullient. Speaking in Warsaw, he came right out of the gate with a fresh vow of confidence in the ultimate success of Ukraine’s resistance to Russia: “Kyiv remains strong.” Throughout his speech, he hammered away at the divide between democracy and autocracy. “Autocrats,” he said, “only understand one word: ‘no.’” He didn’t hesitate to call out Putin directly, either: “Our support for Ukraine will not waver, NATO will not be divided, and we will not tire,” adding, “President Putin’s craven lust for land and power will fail.” He made a point of directly calling out Putin’s bluster about the West being responsible for the war, noting that “President Putin chose this war. Every day the war continues is his choice.”
Biden, in other words, isn’t going wobbly. And he doesn’t want America’s European partners, particularly in western Europe, to flinch either.
It was fitting that the speech was held in Poland, which Hitler and Stalin carved up in the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact of 1939. Poland, whole and free, has become the leader of European resistance to Moscow’s war of aggression. Even as Germany and France have engaged in diplomatic tergiversations, Poland has remained adamant about stymying Putin’s imperial ambitions. Writing in Foreign Policy, Pawel Markiewicz and Maciej Olchawa observe, “try as he may, Putin’s war machine has been unable to successfully do what Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union did in the past — exploit animosities to divide Poles and Ukrainians.”
The truth is that Putin’s war machine has been unable to do much of anything successfully. His march of folly into Ukraine has ruthlessly exposed the inherent debilities of his authoritarian regime. The corruption he presided over wasn’t confined to the economy but permeated every sphere of government. His speech was the ranting of a historical loser who has almost no cards left to play. In seeking to subvert the West, Putin has only strengthened it.