Biden Just Destroyed Putin’s Last Hope

The president’s visit to Ukraine was a gut punch to the Russian leader.

Biden and Zelensky walking together
Evan Vucci / AFP / Getty

The long-range missiles matter. So do the super-accurate artillery shells, the surface-to-air missiles, and the winter weather gear; the training in the English countryside or the muddy Grafenwöhr maneuver grounds; and the intelligence provided from the eyes in space and the ears on airplanes that circle outside the battle zone.

President Joe Biden’s visit to Kyiv matters just as much as any of these.

Other heads of government preceded him, earning deserved credit. But it is an altogether different thing when the president of the United States—who is, indeed, the leader of the Free World—shows up. His words mattered. He pledged “our unwavering and unflagging commitment to Ukraine’s democracy, sovereignty, and territorial integrity.” And even more important, that the United States will stand with Ukraine “as long as it takes.”

Symbols matter: a Kennedy or a Reagan at the Berlin Wall, a Churchill with a cigar and a bowler, for that matter a green-clad Zelensky growling, “I need ammunition, not a ride.” Simply by taking the hazardous trip to Kyiv, Biden made a strategic move of cardinal importance.

While the president clearly intended to bolster the confidence of Ukraine, and the commitment of ambivalent Europeans and neo-isolationist Americans, his real audiences lay elsewhere, as his remarks about Western strength indicated. Russia has cycled through a series of theories of victory in Ukraine—that Kyiv’s leaders would flee, that Ukraine’s population would not fight, that its army would be crumpled up by a sudden blitz or by grinding assaults. It has been reduced to one last hope: that Vladimir Putin’s will is stronger than Joe Biden’s. And Biden just said, by deed as well as word, “Oh no it’s not.”

This is a gut punch to Russia’s leader. The Russians received word of the trip, we are informed—and presumably the threat, stated or implied, that they would get a violent and overwhelming response if they attempted to interfere with it. For a leader obsessed with strength, like Putin, that is a blow. His own people will quietly or openly ask, “Why could we not prevent this?” And the answer, unstated, will have to be, “Because we were afraid.”

The visual contrast between an American president with his signature aviator sunglasses walking in sunny downtown Kyiv with the pugnacious and eloquent president of Ukraine and a Russian president who has yet to visit the war zone is also striking. Not to mention the difference between an American president who mingles with others, shaking hands, hugging and slapping backs, and a Russian president who keeps his subordinates at a physical distance, and who has to be surrounded by flunkies and actors when he supposedly meets with normal people. No belligerent words from the Kremlin will change those visual images, which will be seen in Russia as well as around the world.

This was not a stunt, but rather an act of statesmanship. Biden’s visit comes at a moment when much hangs in the balance. The Chinese have begun making noises about arming Russia, according to the United States government, which would be a very great change in this war. The Western allies, including the democracies of Asia, have begun mobilizing their military industries. The Russian offensives that were supposed to produce large gains timed to the anniversary of the invasion have instead carpeted the Donbas with the bodies of thousands of men who learned too late that, as one French World War I general put it, “fire kills.” And meanwhile, Ukraine is building up a force to use in its own counteroffensive.

The Russia-Ukraine war is not merely a humanitarian calamity, a monstrous collection of crimes against humanity, a gross violation of solemn agreements and international law. It is also a watershed, in which much will be determined about the future of the international system. It could lead to a very dark place, not different in kind from that of the 1930s and 1940s, if the dictators get their way. But if the liberal democracies unite and display the resolve, enterprise, and military capacity that they have shown before, that outcome can still be avoided.

To that end, nothing matters more than American leadership, the recovery of the prestige and weight that have been wasted or diffused over the past few decades. We are not near the conclusion of this war, and there is much of a tangible nature that needs to be done to bring the conflict closer to its end. Words and gestures are critical, but only when accompanied by deeds. But for now, by taking a bold step, President Biden has made the future for Ukraine, for Europe, and for the cause of freedom under the law a great deal brighter.