President Joe Biden barely slept as he rolled in the dark toward Kyiv earlier this week, sitting awake as his curtained-off train car crossed into the warzone that has come to shape so much of his presidency.
Biden departed Europe three days later having loudly recommitted to backing Ukraine as it enters a second year of conflict, working to cast aside doubts about the durability of American support and directly blaming his counterpart in the Kremlin for thrusting the continent into war.
The 72 hours Biden spent on the ground in Ukraine and Poland have been among the most momentous of his presidency, the culmination both of careful, highly secretive planning by White House aides and the president’s singular, decades-held view of America’s role in the world.
In conversations with aides, foreign counterparts and even by phone with his wife over the course of his visit, Biden has asserted his trip this week was essential in showing the world the US wouldn’t waver in its support.
As Air Force One returns to Washington, however, it is difficult to ignore the looming questions Biden’s visit did little to answer: How and when the war will end.
“There will continue to be hard and very bitter days, victories and tragedies,” Biden said in remarks from the gardens of Warsaw Castle, lit dramatically and crowded with a flag-waving audience of thousands. “But Ukraine is steeled for the fight ahead. And the United States, together with our allies and partners, are going to continue to have Ukraine’s back as it defends itself.”
Biden did not necessarily set out on this week’s trip to provide a better picture of the war’s endgame, nor is he actively nudging the Ukrainians toward the negotiating table with Russia. Indeed, Biden and his aides do not view Russian President Vladimir Putin as anywhere close to seeking a settlement in the war, an impression only reinforced by Putin’s belligerent and, in their view, delusional speech from Moscow on Tuesday.
Yet underneath Biden’s pledges of continued support for Ukraine remains a lingering concern, shared with his European allies, that the war could descend into a stalemate as each side sees small gains and losses without a clear trajectory.
The massive influx of weapons, ammunition and armor sent by the United States and other countries over the past few months was intended, in large part, to help Ukraine secure battlefield gains that could strengthen its position at a to-be-determined negotiating table with Russia.
There have been persistent concerns at how Ukraine is using those resources among some US and European officials, who have encouraged Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to focus on planning and executing a spring counteroffensive rather than waging battle on multiple fronts, some with less strategic importance than others.
In their closed-door conversation in Kyiv on Monday, Biden and Zelensky “spent time talking about the coming months, in terms of the battlefield, and what Ukraine will need in terms of capabilities to be able to succeed on the battlefield,” according to US national security adviser Jake Sullivan, one of the tiny number of aides who accompanied the president on his covert visit to Ukraine.
Tellingly, Sullivan said much of Biden’s focus during the day-long journey into the warzone was spent plotting out how he would raise those issues with Zelensky when they sat down to talk inside the gold-and-white Mariinsky Palace in Kyiv.
“He was quite focused on how he was going to approach his conversation with President Zelensky and, in part, how the two of them were really going to look out over the course of 2023 and try to come to a common understanding of what the objectives are, where Ukraine is trying to get and how the United States can most effectively support them alongside our allies and partners in getting to where it wants to get,” he said.
Afterward, Biden’s aides were tight-lipped about how exactly that discussion went, beyond saying there would be follow-up conversations among US and Ukrainian officials in the coming days and weeks.
Almost certainly raised in the talks were Zelensky’s perpetual requests for more sophisticated weapons, including longer-range missiles and fighter jets. Some of Biden’s other allies in the region have advocated for sending that kind of advanced weaponry as they look to provide Ukraine any kind of advantage in the ongoing war.
In earlier meetings, Zelensky had also asked if the White House could devote some members of the US team to help further develop a 10-point peace proposal he first unveiled last year. Yet that work remains ongoing, and there was little talk of peace talks during Biden’s trip this week.
Biden headed back to Washington aboard Air Force One on Wednesday evening local time. He tripped as he ascended the steps onto the plane, catching himself on a stair before recovering and going inside for the roughly nine-hour flight back to the nation’s capital.
Instead, the president focused his remarks in Warsaw – a landmark address he’s been developing for weeks – on heralding the continued resistance of the Ukrainians and accusing Putin of a litany of atrocities.
“President Putin chose this war,” he declared. “Every day the war continues is his choice. He could end the war with a word.”
A few hours earlier and several hundred miles away, Putin was delivering his own important speech to political and military elite, offering a dramatically different narrative of the war as he accused the West of turning Ukraine into a global confrontation.
The differences between the two speeches were stark, both in content and character. Biden was introduced in Warsaw to a pulsing pop anthem; Putin seemed to put some members of his audience to sleep with his hour-and-45-minute address. On Wednesday, Biden said it was a “big mistake” for Putin to announce that he was suspending his country’s participation in the New START nuclear arms reduction treaty.
For as divergent as the two men’s speeches were, however, they did seem to agree that the war in Ukraine would not end in the near term.
“We have to be honest and clear-eyed as we look at the year ahead. The defense of freedom is not the work of a day or of a year. It’s always difficult, it’s always important,” Biden said.
Biden’s aides said his remarks were intended for a multitude of audiences: The besieged Ukrainian people, a Polish population that has borne much of the outside burden, Russians who may be disillusioned by their leaders’ failings.
But, at least in the view of some on his team, most important were listeners in the United States, thousands of miles from the frontlines, without a direct stake in the war and – according to polls – softening in their support for continued US assistance.
Biden’s critics used his trip this week to paint him as inattentive to his own country’s needs, seizing upon a toxic chemical spill caused by a train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, as an example of an American crisis deserving his attention.
“Can we first acknowledge the fact that yes, Biden is over in Poland, but shouldn’t he be with those people in Ohio?” asked Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina governor and US ambassador to the United Nations who is now seeking the Republican presidential nomination, during a campaign stop in Iowa. “You always, you have to always during any time of crisis go to your people immediately.”
Following his speech Tuesday in Warsaw, Biden did speak by telephone from his hotel with the governors of Ohio and Pennsylvania, along with the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, to discuss the situation.
“I reaffirmed my commitment to making sure they have everything they need,” he wrote in a caption accompanying a photo of the call that was posted on Instagram.
But he also used the opportunity to blast Republicans – including former President Donald Trump, who is set to visit East Palestine on Wednesday – for loosing regulations and making it more difficult to strengthen rail safety.
Biden’s aides ultimately believe Republican members of Congress will continue to provide support for Ukraine, buoyed by the staunch backing of GOP leaders Mitch McConnell and Kevin McCarthy despite the protestations of some of their party’s members.
Even so, the criticism this week that Biden is overly focused abroad is telling, particularly from a Republican like Haley, who had assumed a more traditional view of America’s role in the world.
Perhaps the most impassioned call this week for sustained American involvement in Europe did not come from Biden himself, for whom the concept is innate, but from Polish President Andrzej Duda, once a top ally of Trump who even proposed naming a military base “Fort Trump” in honor of his friend.
Initially viewed skeptically by the Biden administration for his human rights record and reversal of certain democratic norms, Duda has emerged as the United States’ top partner in Eastern Europe amid the raging war in Ukraine, overseeing a massive influx of refugees and turning Poland into a logistics hub for the shipments of Western military assistance over the border.
Speaking across the table from Biden on Tuesday, Duda placed this week’s events within a century-old context of robust American presence on the continent.
“The United States … has demonstrated on multiple occasions its responsibility for European matters during the First World War, during the Second World War, during the Cold War. Every single time, they restored the democratic rules. Every time, the United States brought back freedom,” he said.
“All of us,” he went on, “we’re looking at what you did yesterday, and we believe that America is able to maintain the global order.”