Biden’s Hope vs. Putin’s Lies

The U.S. president’s optimism about Ukraine creates the expectation that everything is possible—and commits him to a Ukrainian victory.

Joe Biden
Porzycki / NurPhoto / AP

It’s not that often that the president of Russia and the president of the United States give major speeches on the same day, hitting parallel themes and subjects. That it happened today was no accident: Friday is the first anniversary of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and Vladimir Putin and Joe Biden were both interpreting that war to their audiences. But those audiences were very different. So were the visions of the world on offer.

Putin spoke for two hours in a large, featureless hall. His target audience was in the room: politicians “elected” according to a rigged system, as well as bureaucrats, security officials, and functionaries—precisely the class of elite Russians who are rumored to be most unhappy with the war. Periodically they got up to applaud. Otherwise they maintained grim, emotionless expressions, and no wonder.

For these people, Putin had a clear message: “Those who have embarked on the path of betrayal of Russia must be held accountable under the law.” He would not, he said, unleash a “witch hunt” against dissenters—which was, of course, a warning that a witch hunt is always possible. Ordinary Russians had no sympathy for those who had lost money because of Western sanctions, he maintained—a hint, of course, that those in the room who had lost money thanks to Western sanctions should not expect to get it back. As for those who had left the country, among them the sons and daughters of those in the room, he dismissed them as “national traitors.”

Point by point, Putin repeated lies that he has told many times before. “We were doing everything possible to solve this problem peacefully.” Ukraine “started the war.” It is “them”—the West—“who are culpable for the war, and we are using force to stop it.” Everyone in that room knew these were lies. Many of his listeners, before the war, publicly mocked American warnings that an invasion was about to take place and were shocked and surprised when it did. But dictators do not always tell obvious lies because they expect anyone to believe them. Instead, by repeating obvious falsehoods, the Russian dictator was reminding the Russian elite, again, that he holds absolute power, he can say whatever he wants, and they have no choice but to pretend to believe him.

A few of his phrases were meant for outsiders to hear. The announcement of a withdrawal from nuclear treaties was meant to scare Americans. Putin knows that the Biden administration is deterred by fear of Russian nuclear weapons, and so he has a genuine interest in stoking that fear, whenever and however he can. The wearily familiar language about Western degeneracy—“the destruction of the family, cultural and national identity, perversion, and the abuse of children are declared the norm”—was intended to scare any Russians who still feel a twinge of regret or a sense of loss, now that Russia is cut off from Europe. No broader, bigger, uplifting vision was on offer. Putin did not seek to inspire, to convince, to excite, because he doesn’t have to. He doesn’t need to persuade anyone in Russia; he just needs them to be afraid.

Joe Biden, by contrast, was speaking outdoors, behind Warsaw’s royal castle, to a crowd of Poles and expat Americans who appeared genuinely pleased to be there. They smiled, talked among themselves, and waved flags. But they were not his main audience. Unlike Putin, Biden cared a lot more about reaching people who weren’t there: the American public, the European public, and the Ukrainian public too. For them, he used broad, universal, inclusive rhetoric, words like freedom and phrases like the hope of the brave. Unlike Putin, he was absolutely seeking to inspire, persuade, and explain. Putin had doubted the willpower of America and the democratic world, Biden said, but Putin was wrong: “Yes, we would stand up for sovereignty … Yes, we would stand up for the right of people to live free from aggression.” And yes, of course, “we would stand up for democracy.”

Not that everyone everywhere will have been pleased. Other than Russia, Biden mentioned no autocracy by name. But he did state another general principle, one broad enough to interpret as a reference to China or Iran: “Appetites of the autocrat cannot be appeased. They must be opposed. Autocrats only understand one word: ‘No.’ ‘No.’ ‘No.’”

This, too, pleased the crowd at the castle, but such broad, universal language carries some dangers. Biden’s Warsaw speech set a high bar—an extraordinarily high bar—for himself, for his administration, for NATO, for the coalition of democracies, and for Ukraine. If we are fighting for “freedom and sovereignty,” we can never accept anything less. If we are fighting for democracy, surely we must expect democracy to be respected by our political allies too—among them Poland, where democracy is in jeopardy. If we are going to call Russia’s horrific acts of brutality in occupied Ukraine “crimes against humanity,” doesn’t that obligate us to prosecute them? If we believe in justice, shouldn’t we seek it everywhere?

When you rule by fear, using lies, no one expects anything better. When you offer hope and optimism, you create a belief, an assumption, that everything is possible. I hope Biden understands that he has promised to win this war, and that now he has to find a way to do so.