Joe Biden delivered the biggest warning by a US president to a Russian leader since the end of the Cold War, calling Vladimir Putin a “dictator” and saying he must pay “a price” for invading Ukraine.
“He has no idea what’s coming,” Biden said during his State of the Union address to both houses of Congress on Tuesday after Russia stepped up its attacks on Ukrainian cities.
The act on Capitol Hill was a clear sign of the bipartisan support that exists in Washington for Ukraine, as well as for the strong economic sanctions applied to Russia and to Putin himself in recent days.
Democratic and Republican lawmakers gave the Ukrainian people a standing ovation when Biden asked them for that “sign” and mentioned that the country’s ambassador to the US, Oksana Markarova, was present in the room along with the first lady, Jill Biden.
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However, the presidential address was also a reminder of the limits that the White House has drawn in the face of armed conflict in Europe, even as the US provides military and economic assistance to Ukraine.
“Let me be clear: our forces are not and will not be involved in a conflict with Russian forces in Ukraine,” Biden said.
“Our forces are not going to Europe to fight in Ukraine, but to defend our NATO allies, in case Putin decides to push further west,” he added.
And he said the US and its allies “will defend every inch of the territory of NATO countries with the full force” of their collective might.
But even acknowledging the “courage” with which Ukrainians are fighting for their country, Biden indicated that “the next few days, weeks and months will be tough for them.”
In the past, other US presidents have clashed with Putin for different reasons.
For example, when Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, then-President Barack Obama warned that “costs” would be imposed on Moscow.
But the sanctions applied for that action and for the war that Russia started in Donbas, eastern Ukraine, on Russian oil businesses, financiers and individuals were much lighter than those resolved by the US and its allies in recent days.
Biden recalled that these punishments seek to exclude Russia’s largest banks from the international financial system and prevent the Russian Central Bank from using the US$630 billion in reserves to stabilize its currency.
The value of the ruble sank 30% and the Russian stock market had to close, Biden told Congress.
“Russia’s economy is reeling and Putin alone is to blame,” he said.
It was also remarkable that Biden referred to Putin as a “dictator” even though he had already attached that label to him in 2016 when he was Obama’s vice president and Russia interfered in the US election that Donald Trump won.
However, upon assuming the presidency last year, Biden had sought an understanding with Putin.
Both leaders held a personal meeting in Geneva last June, after which Biden said he saw prospects for improvements in relations with Russia.
However, now the confrontation between the two is reminiscent of the tensest moments of the Cold War.
The Russian president put his country’s nuclear forces on special alert a few days ago in response to what he called “aggressive statements” by NATO leaders about Ukraine.
On Tuesday, Biden addressed the Ukraine crisis at the very beginning of his annual address to Congress, the first of his term and which traditionally begins with domestic US issues rather than international affairs.
He addressed the issue by assuring that “freedom will always triumph over tyranny” .
“Throughout our history, we have learned this lesson: When dictators don’t pay a price for their aggression, they cause more chaos. They keep going. And the costs and threats to America and the world keep rising,” he said.
He also argued that the Russian president launched a premeditated attack on Ukraine but “miscalculated”.
“He thought the West and NATO would not respond. And he thought it might divide us,” he said. “Putin was wrong. We were prepared.”
A special moment
Some analysts praised the way Biden responded to Putin, seeking unity among US allies without going into a direct military clash with Russia.
“President Biden’s response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine has been his best moment as president,” says William Galston, a public policy expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington and a former adviser to President Bill Clinton.
“The West is much more united than most pessimists would have said a few weeks ago and Biden’s performance has something to do with that,” Galston tells BBC Mundo.
As the applause, he received in Congress for his remarks on Ukraine indicates, Biden also has broad national support for the measures he has taken against Moscow.
Three out of four Americans support economic sanctions on Russia and Putin , according to a CBS News poll released this week.
In addition, a majority of 65% support sending weapons to Ukraine and 63% agree with sending troops to protect Washington’s allies in NATO.
But in a country as politically polarized as the US, the question is how long that support will hold.
Biden has fallen in popularity since taking office last year, with his approval rating ranging from 44% to 37% in different polls.
Both Democrats and Republicans demand that actions against Russia include bans on the import of oil from that country.
This is an especially sensitive issue for the US, which is facing its highest rate of inflation in 40 years (7.5%) and has already seen oil prices rise due to the conflict in Europe.
If the war drags on for months, the US and global economy could suffer further effects.
“Biden has an opportunity to persuade the American people that the sacrifices for freedom and democracy in the world are worth it,” says Galston.
“Most likely, the economic consequences of the measures taken will be negative. But I think Americans are now willing to accept them,” he adds.
“Will they do it in three or four months if things get worse? I don’t know.”
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