In Biden’s Unannounced Visit to Kyiv, a Preview of an Increasingly Direct Contest With Putin

WARSAW — President Biden’s sudden appearance in Kyiv’s presidential palace on Monday morning was intended first as a morale booster for shellshocked Ukrainians in the midst of a bleak winter of power outages and a bitter war of attrition.

But it was also the first of several direct challenges on this trip to President Vladimir V. Putin, who a year ago this week believed the Ukrainian capital would become Russian-controlled territory again in a matter of days, moving Mr. Putin closer to his ambition of restoring the empire of Peter the Great.

“Putin’s war of conquest is failing,” Mr. Biden declared from the palace, his very presence there, alongside President Volodymyr Zelensky, meant to symbolize Russia’s failure to take a capital that today remains brimming with life, its restaurants overflowing even as warning sirens blare.

“One year later,” he said, “Kyiv stands. And Ukraine stands. Democracy stands.”

The war in Ukraine is about power and the principle of territorial sovereignty, and whether the Western-designed global order that Americans thought would prevail for decades will, in fact, survive new challenges from Moscow and Beijing. But it is increasingly a contest between two aging Cold Warriors, one 70 years old and another who just turned 80, who have been circling each other for years, and now are engaged in everything short of direct battle.

On Tuesday the vastly different world views of these two leaders will become vividly apparent in a rare split-screen moment. They will both deliver speeches, several hours and 800 miles apart, vowing to stick with the war until the other retreats. Mr. Putin will go first, marking the first anniversary of his ill-fated invasion with what, by all indications, will be a renewal of a strategy that has already led to 200,000 Russian casualties, by British and American estimates, and as many as 60,000 Russians killed.

Mr. Putin will make the case anew that he is not only saving Ukraine from “Nazism,” but saving Russia itself from being overrun by NATO — a claim that seems ridiculous to Europeans but that has become a rallying cry in Moscow. If the past year is any guide, he is almost certain to cast his war as a battle for the restoration of Russia’s historic lands. American intelligence officials say they are picking up indications that he may soon mobilize more Russians into the military, adding hundreds of thousands to the 300,000 already called up.

Hours later, from Warsaw’s ancient Royal Castle, on a hill over the Polish capital, Mr. Biden is expected to build on the case he made in Kyiv on Monday morning, that in the battle between democracy and autocracy, the former has emerged the winner of the first year of what promises to be a long conflict.

Mr. Biden was in Kyiv on Monday for less than six hours before the Secret Service whisked him out of the city. (Notably, the White House informed the Kremlin of Mr. Biden’s impending visit before the president arrived, not as a diplomatic courtesy but for what Mr. Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, called “deconfliction purposes” — essentially, to avoid a Russian strike, accidental or otherwise. Mr. Sullivan added, “I won’t get into how they responded.”)

The covert nature of the Kyiv visit, and the vastly different world views the speeches will represent, underscore the degree to which the battle between these two men has echoes of exactly what Mr. Biden said he wanted to avoid: a replay of the worst days of the Cold War.

It is not a direct parallel, though. This time China is a more powerful player, which is why American officials spent the weekend publicly warning the government of Xi Jinping not to provide “lethal support” that an increasingly stretched Russian military desperately needs.

In fact, just as Mr. Biden arrived in Kyiv, China’s most senior foreign policy official, Wang Yi, arrived in Moscow, for meetings that promise to be far friendlier than his clash on Saturday night with Antony J. Blinken, the secretary of state. American officials say Mr. Wang and other Chinese officials want to help Mr. Putin confront what they view as an arrogant, hypocritical and declining United States. But China says the relationship has its limits — to the point that Mr. Xi publicly warned Russia against using nuclear weapons.

Mr. Biden has his own confrontations with Mr. Xi, over surveillance, technology, China’s arms buildup and Taiwan. But his face-off with Mr. Putin is more direct and more visceral, perhaps the most personal confrontation between superpower leaders since Kennedy and Khrushchev. And even in the worst moments of that standoff — the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 — the two leaders were exchanging civil letters and looking for a way out. They ultimately found one.

Twenty-one months ago, when Mr. Biden and Mr. Putin met face-to-face for the only time since Mr. Biden came to office, that kind of wary relationship still seemed possible. They met on the somewhat neutral ground of Geneva, in a library dominated by a huge globe that seemed a reminder of the fact that they were, once again, dividing up the world into allies and adversaries. Mr. Putin praised Mr. Biden as “a very balanced, professional man” and “very experienced.” Mr. Biden played to Mr. Putin’s ego at the outset of the summit by referring to the United States and Russia as “two great powers.”

The hope was that they could find some common ground — and they emerged agreeing to set up government-to-government talks on two huge points of tension: Abating ransomware attacks on American infrastructure, hospitals and governments, and “strategic stability talks” to map out the future of arms control. There were a few promising meetings.

They spoke twice after that, via a video link. The last time, on Feb. 12, 2022, was marked by a warning from Mr. Biden that if Mr. Putin pulled the trigger and ordered his troops massing on Ukraine’s border to invade there would be “swift and severe costs on Russia.” An aide who witnessed the call said Mr. Putin “shrugged, like we’ve heard that before,” and denied he had military action in mind.

They have not spoken since, and the follow-on talks they agreed to in Geneva were halted. By this past weekend, Vice President Kamala Harris, appearing at the Munich Security Conference, was accusing Russia of “crimes against humanity” and France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, warned that the West had to be prepared for “prolonged conflict” — and arm Ukraine and itself accordingly. There was more discussion of how to produce 155 mm howitzer rounds and where to find more Leopard 2 tanks to send to Ukraine than there was of possible diplomatic solutions.

“Everyone — Ukraine, Europe and now countries in Asia — wants to rearm,” Richard Fontaine, the chief executive of the Center for a New American Security and a former Republican national security official, wrote after the Munich conference. And he noted a frisson of anxiety about whether the West’s aid to Ukraine could continue at current levels for much longer — meaning that “in a long war of attrition, Moscow might have the upper hand.”

Mr. Zelensky, appearing by video, had one message to his weapons suppliers. “We need to hurry up,” he said. “We need speed.”

And for all the good feeling created by Mr. Biden’s visit on Monday, Mr. Zelensky is unlikely to conclude that Mr. Biden is hurrying enough. Mr. Biden remains worried, aides report, that the F-16 fighters and long-range missiles that Mr. Zelensky demands could provoke a wider, more direct conflict with Russia, because they could reach deep into Russian territory. And that, in turn, might tempt Mr. Putin to renew his threats to reach into his arsenal of tactical nuclear weapons.

It is unclear how Mr. Biden’s visit will affect Mr. Putin’s speech, which presumably was drafted long before the American president’s surprise, and somewhat taunting, appearance. It was Mr. Biden’s eighth visit to Kyiv, he noted as he sat with Mr. Zelensky in front of a fireplace.

But Mr. Putin’s speech will be his first state-of-the-nation address since 2021. He skipped it last year, analysts believe, because he lacked good news to share amid Russia’s setbacks at the front.

But the approaching anniversary of the invasion, along with a lack of clarity even among Mr. Putin’s supporters about the nature of his exact goals in Ukraine, may have forced his hand. The speech is now widely anticipated to include wide-ranging attacks on the West, grounded in Mr. Putin’s contention that the United States is using Ukraine to wage a proxy war against Russia.

“I believe that President Putin’s address won’t have anything good for the liberals,” Konstantin Malofeyev, an ultraconservative Russian business magnate and a prominent cheerleader of the invasion, said in a phone interview over the weekend, dismissing the possibility that Mr. Putin could use his speech to try to lower tensions with the West.

Russia, Mr. Malofeyev went on, will keep fighting until it achieves victory in Ukraine “because our commander in chief himself understands that we now have no other choice.”

Tatiana Stanovaya, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, wrote that while Mr. Putin’s address was already expected to be very hawkish, “additional edits could be made now to make it even tougher.”

Russian media wasted no time casting Mr. Biden’s visit to Kyiv as proving Mr. Putin’s contention that America is behind the fighting. RIA Novosti, the Russian state news agency, quoted an analyst as saying that Mr. Biden’s visit showed that Mr. Zelensky’s government was “an instrument of the collective West.”

And as Mr. Putin has pivoted from engagement to aggression, Mr. Biden became the leader of the “Western elites” who, Mr. Putin declared last September, are Russia’s “enemy.” In the Kremlin’s propaganda, Mr. Biden is now invariably portrayed as senile, sleepy and out of touch.

Tuesday’s succession of speeches will also reflect the two presidents’ different constituencies and political vulnerabilities.

Mr. Biden’s speech will be open to the public in Poland. Mr. Putin will speak in a hall across Red Square from the Kremlin, with Russia’s ruling elite — regional governors, lawmakers and other officials — in attendance.

For Mr. Biden, it is the ever-shifting political winds inside the United States that represent the greatest vulnerability to his ability to stay the course in Ukraine — already there are objections on the far left and far right, though the core of Republican and Democratic support has held.

For Mr. Putin, the big concern is that Moscow’s disparate pro-Kremlin elites could fall out of line if Russia’s military continues to struggle.

But even Russia admits there is a lot on the line. Dmitri S. Peskov, Mr. Putin’s spokesman, once treated the war as a small operation, a sideshow that ordinary Russians didn’t have to think much about. Now, that fiction can no longer be contained.

“The special military operation affects our whole life, the life of the continent, in one way or another,” Mr. Peskov said in a Russian state television interview aired on Sunday. “So one should expect that the president will devote a lot of attention to it.”

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