Putin and Biden Shore Up Alliances in Dueling Appearances

WARSAW — In a day of dueling efforts to shore up allegiances, President Biden wrapped up a three-day trip to Europe Wednesday with a promise of America’s commitment to its allies as President Vladimir V. Putin warmly welcomed China’s top diplomat to Moscow and rallied pro-war Russians.

With the anniversary of Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine approaching, Mr. Biden met in Warsaw with leaders from NATO’s eastern flank, acknowledging that “you know better than anyone what’s at stake in this conflict, not just for Ukraine, but for the freedom of democracies throughout Europe and around the world.”

At around the same time, Mr. Putin told a boisterous crowd of tens of thousands at a stadium rally that “there is a battle underway on our historical borders, for our people,” just after he tried to shore up his most important partnership in a meeting with the top Chinese diplomat, Wang Yi.

Taken together, the scenes created the impression that the world is retreating into two blocs that bear similarities to those of the Cold War.

This time, many former Eastern Bloc countries — Hungary is a notable exception — are aligning with the West to oppose Mr. Putin’s aggression. And China and Russia, dropping their many differences, are conducting military exercises together and deepening their financial ties as each faces Western sanctions.

But the reality is still more complicated.

Many other powers — including India, Turkey and Israel — remain on the fence, continuing to buy oil and gas from Russia or to work with Mr. Putin diplomatically, while buying arms from the United States and remaining in its defense orbit. That has touched off a messy, behind-the-scenes effort by both sides to win support.

For Mr. Biden, the question is whether the Western allies have the wherewithal to continue arming and supporting the Ukrainian government at the levels needed to keep an emerging Russian offensive at bay, and to deter Mr. Putin from once again seeking to take over the entire country.

For Mr. Putin, the doubts may be even greater, even as he tries to telegraph confidence and public support.

An offensive he began in recent weeks has yet to make substantial gains. And while he welcomed Mr. Wang at the Kremlin and spoke of a coming visit from China’s president, Xi Jinping, it is clear that China is wary about being seen as supporting the war — and at a moment when American officials are releasing intelligence suggesting that Mr. Putin is again seeking arms and technology from Beijing.

“China is willing to work with Russia to maintain a strategic focus, deepen mutual political trust and enhance strategic coordination,” Mr. Wang told Mr. Putin. He also said the Chinese-Russian partnership “is not aimed at any third party, and will not accept meddling from any third party, and even less will it accept duress from any third party.”

That was a clear reference to the United States, which has threatened that any material aid from China to Moscow’s war effort would result in economic reprisals.

Keeping China in his corner is a priority for Mr. Putin, with Russia looking to Beijing as a critical trading partner in the face of Western sanctions. In an apparent nod to China’s discomfort with being seen as a military ally, Mr. Putin said in his televised opening remarks to Mr. Wang that “economic issues” were “above all” the field in which the two countries’ relationship was “reaching new frontiers.”

Still, Chinese and Russian naval ships are holding drills off the coast of South Africa this week — a reminder that the two countries are also deepening their military cooperation.

Mr. Putin, at least economically, is clearly the junior member of the partnership. It is the reverse of Soviet days, when few imagined that China might become the world’s second-largest economy.

In the view of American officials, Mr. Xi has his doubts about supporting Russia’s invasion, but is happy to aid Mr. Putin both to distract the United States from its economic competition with Beijing and to tie up the American military resources being used to support Ukraine.

Mr. Biden used his session with the allies at Warsaw’s royal castle to repeat his vow to “defend literally every inch of NATO.” So far, the Kremlin has not struck outside Ukraine’s borders, but that restraint has not extended to cyberspace: Google recently reported that cyberstrikes from Russia on computer users in NATO countries in 2022 were up 300 percent over the same period in 2020.

Mr. Biden, who championed the post-Cold War order as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and as vice president, used the meeting in Warsaw to underscore how much the world has altered in a year.

“The idea that over 100,000 forces would invade another country — since World War II, nothing like that has happened,’’ Mr. Biden said. “Things have changed radically. And we have to, we have to make sure we change them back.”

Mr. Putin offered a starkly different message, saying that he was restoring Russia to its rightful place, and reassembling territories he contends are part of the Russian empire. Yet Mr. Putin’s public events Wednesday spoke to some of the risks of his stuttering war, whose precise aims he did little to clarify in his 100-minute state-of-the-nation address the day before.

Mr. Wang arrived in Moscow after visiting Western European countries, where he sought to persuade their leaders that Beijing wants to encourage an end to the war in Ukraine. But Mr. Wang’s published remarks to Mr. Putin and other Russian officials indicated that Beijing will not risk its friendship with Moscow over Ukraine.

“Both sides engaged in a thorough exchange of views about the Ukraine issue,” the Chinese Foreign Ministry said. Mr. Wang, it said, “approved of Russia’s reaffirmation that it is willing to resolve the issue through dialogue and negotiations.”

After the meeting, Mr. Putin tended to the home front. He walked onto a stage at the Moscow stadium that hosted the 2018 World Cup men’s soccer final and told the Russians in the stands — many of them bused-in students and government workers — that their soldiers were fighting “on our historical borders, for our people.”

“Russia!” Mr. Putin blared into his microphone, leading the crowd in a chant.

The official occasion was a Kremlin-organized celebration of a military holiday, Defenders of the Fatherland Day. But it appeared a clear effort by Mr. Putin to show his country and the world a stamp of public approval a day after his state-of-the-nation speech, in which he painted a picture of war as the country’s new normal.

“All our people are defenders of the fatherland,” Mr. Putin said at the rally. “When we are united, we have no equal.”

At Mr. Biden’s meeting with NATO leaders, the message was plain enough: If Mr. Putin were to order tanks into other European countries, the nine nations along the military alliance’s eastern flank would be the likeliest targets.

With Mr. Biden listening, President Klaus Iohannis of Romania urged the group to stand firmly behind Ukraine, in part as a way of securing peace for the people living in the shadow of Russia.

“The war has brought nothing but suffering and despair, killing and displacing of millions of Ukrainians, unprecedented destruction and uncertainty,” Mr. Iohannis said. “We the leaders of the eastern flank have the duty to stand firm in defense of our peace.”

In a speech from the royal castle in Warsaw on Tuesday, Mr. Biden was resolute about American commitment to the defense of NATO allies, declaring that the guarantee to come to the aid of any threatened ally “is rock solid.”

“And every member of NATO knows it,” he said. “And Russia knows it as well.”

But the threat of direct military intervention is less theoretical for Poland, Hungary and the other countries whose borders lie not far from Russian territory than for Britain, France or Spain.

After the meeting, Mr. Biden departed Poland for Washington, concluding a foreign trip that began with a top-secret visit to Ukraine’s capital and ended with declarations of unity but a looming sense of uncertainty about the future.

Michael D. Shear and David E. Sanger reported from Warsaw, and Anton Troianovski form Berlin. Christopher Buckley contributed reporting from Taipei, Taiwan, and Valerie Hopkins from Moscow.

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