Biden’s personal rivalry with Putin is more intense than ever after dramatic final day of US president’s journey across Europe

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The target hardly seemed coincidental. Biden was 250 miles away, visiting Ukrainian refugees in the bitter cold at Poland’s national stadium. He heard pleas from young mothers to pray for the men – husbands, fathers, brothers – they had left behind.

“We Ukrainian mothers are ready to strangle (Putin) with our bare hands,” said a woman whose son continued to fight. Biden gathered a little girl in a pink coat and pigtails and told her he wanted to take her home.

The very last words Biden would utter on his final flight across Europe were ultimately the most profound, and reverberated widely as Air Force One departed for Washington. They surprised his aides, many of whom spent hours refining the text of a speech the White House saw as a key moment for Biden’s presidency. The line Biden uttered was not in what they wrote.

Backstage at the castle, White House officials hastily gathered a clarification — one of many on this trip alone — to say Biden was not calling for regime change. But not before the Kremlin gave its own offended response, saying that the Russian ruler should “not be decided by Mr. Biden”.

The series of events that unfolded here on Saturday afternoon put a sharp relief on the very unsettled atmosphere that pervades Europe as the Russian invasion of Ukraine enters its second month. A display of Putin’s aggression in Ukraine’s border region was followed by a casual but firm suggestion by Biden that the Russians would find another leader.

Biden’s view of Putin had darkened in the past month, officials say, and his language has sharpened when describing a “pure thug”, “murderous dictator”, “war criminal” and, after visiting refugees at the stadium, a ” Butcher.”

His aides have said Biden hoped to avoid the Cold War, the Washington versus Moscow dynamics he believes Putin desires. Instead, he left Europe more than ever in direct conflict with the Russian leader.

It was unclear whether that was his intention. The clarification provided by the White House marked at least the third time during Biden’s trip that a White House official felt compelled to clear up comments from the president that, in themselves, seemed surprising.

Praising the heroism of the Ukrainians, Biden told US troops: “You’ll see when you get there” – even though he has vowed that US troops will not enter the conflict directly. Afterwards, a spokesman said nothing had changed: “The president has been clear that we are not sending US troops to Ukraine.”

And after Biden said he would respond “in kind” to Russia’s use of chemical weapons in Ukraine, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan assured reporters that the United States “does not intend to use chemical weapons under any circumstances.” .

Biden has a well-established pattern of talking out of hand, though perhaps never at such a high stakes. White House officials said before Biden’s speech that the president had been working intensively behind the scenes to strengthen cooperation among his colleagues.

“He sleeps a lot less on these kinds of trips than maybe other trips because he just goes, goes, goes — wants to talk to the next leader, you know, take the next briefing,” Sullivan said on Friday halfway through Biden’s flight from Brussels to Rzeszów. southeastern Poland, where he met American soldiers.

Biden returns to Washington with some home wins

Exactly a month after Russia invaded Ukraine, Biden’s quick visit to Europe was intended as a show of American determination as the continent faces its worst conflict since World War II. Aid workers said after months of phone calls and video conferences from his basement Situation Room in Washington, Biden wanted to come here to meet leaders in person at a critical time in the war.

The timing of the summits was abrupt, leading some European officials to question whether anything could come of talks without the usual time to prepare. Some Western officials worried that Biden’s insistence on a face-to-face meeting was an attempt to force decisions on some of the remaining sticking points.

Others feared that instead of strengthening unity among the allies — which officials say has come as a shock to Putin — the visit would instead expose the cracks that still exist.

Still, they set out to work with their American counterparts to arrange the so-called “deliverables” — those items that leaders can announce afterward to show their various supporters that they are capable of getting things done.

Even as Biden flew to Europe on Wednesday, the talks continued. Aboard Air Force One, the president’s various policy experts poured in and out of his cabin in the nose of the plane, updating him on progress toward the myriad of things he hoped to accomplish.

Biden’s top national security adviser described the scene as “speed dating the president on every subject under the sun” — albeit at a higher stake than perhaps any other moment in recent memory.

As it turns out, Biden’s visit to Brussels has led to breakthroughs, including the announcement of a joint task force with Europe to phase out the country’s dependence on Russian oil and gas. But in retrospect, even Biden acknowledged that the extraordinary last-minute meeting was unlikely to lead to Russia easing its slaughter in Ukraine, at least in the short term.

“The answer is no,” Biden said when asked directly if something that happened in Brussels would make Putin change course. Instead, he said that “the most important thing is that we stay united in the coming months,” which he believes would ultimately affect Putin’s ability and will to carry on.

“We have to show – the reason why I asked for the meeting – that we have to remain completely, totally, thoroughly united,” he said.

President steals the West for a long struggle

It was the clearest sign yet that 30 days after the war in Russia, Biden and his team do not believe that the bloody conflict in Ukraine is coming to an end.

“This battle will not be won in days or months,” Biden said during his speech on Saturday afternoon. “We must arm ourselves for a long battle that lies ahead.”

Even Russia’s claim on Saturday to narrow its military targets was met with skepticism privately from US officials, who said they would instead look at what Putin is doing with his troops in the country before making an assessment.

One of Biden’s goals on his visit to Europe was to bring a human dimension to his decision-making by meeting refugees and those who helped them, along with American soldiers he had deployed along NATO’s eastern rim to kill Putin. to deter.

Biden said he had hoped to see more and was eager to visit Ukraine himself to witness to the suffering. As a senator and vice president, Biden was a regular visitor to US war zones, a fact he mentioned when he encountered troops located about 60 miles from the border with Ukraine.

“I’ve been in and out of Iraq and Afghanistan about 40 times,” he recalls.

Yet Biden’s aides never seriously considered slipping across the border into Ukraine. Unlike a stop in Iraq or Afghanistan, where U.S. bases and personnel can help secure airspace, Ukraine is not a U.S. war zone — a fact that cropped up in both logistical and philosophical ways during Biden’s journey as he worked to define the next stage of the conflict.

For Ukrainians watching from their capital Kiev, this week’s highs proved frustratingly disappointing. NATO leaders remain flatly opposed to calls for a no-fly zone from President Volodymyr Zelensky, who didn’t even bother to ask again during virtual remarks at Wednesday’s NATO summit. Instead, he simply pointed out that he had never received a clear answer to his request.

“In all honesty, we are very disappointed. We expect more courage. We expected some bold decisions. The alliance has made decisions as if there was no war,” said Andriy Yermak, head of the office of the President of Ukraine, in a statement. live interview. with the Atlantic Council on Friday.

Even Biden’s pledge on Wednesday to respond proportionately if Putin used chemical weapons in Ukraine was considered cold consolation by some Ukrainian officials.

“What we heard is that it’s okay that we die from bullets, okay that we die from missiles, okay that my people are starving in the occupied cities. But if and when chemical weapons are going to be used, you can imagine that this was extremely painful, that this was extremely annoying,” said Kira Rudik, a Ukrainian MP, interviewed by CNN’s Hala Gorani.

“If the whole world is so afraid of Putin, why does Biden say we will change our minds if there is a chemical attack? Do you understand how cruel this sounds?” asked Rudik.

Others in the region — at least those under NATO’s collective defense alliance — felt more confident.

“We know what Russian imperialism stands for, and we know what it means to be attacked by Russian forces, because our grandfathers and great-grandfathers experienced it; sometimes even our parents experienced it,” Polish President Andrzej Duda told Biden when they met. Friday.

“So thank you for being here,” he said. “And first of all, thank you for your incredible leadership.”

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