President Biden made a surprise visit to Kyiv on Monday, in a highly symbolic show of support for Ukraine almost a year to the day after Russia invaded the country. During a visit which had been shrouded in secrecy, Biden reiterated America’s “unwavering” support for Kyiv, and staged a walkabout with Ukraine’s President Zelensky as air-raid sirens sounded nearby.
He announced $500m in new military aid, and new sanctions on Russia. Zelensky thanked Biden for visiting “at a huge moment for Ukraine”. In a speech in Warsaw the next day, Biden condemned Russia’s war of “choice”. “Ukraine will never be a victory for Russia,” he vowed. “Never.”
Also on Tuesday, President Putin delivered his annual state-of-the-nation address in Moscow, in which he announced that Russia will suspend its last remaining nuclear weapons agreement with the US. The 2010 New Start treaty limits the nuclear arsenals of the two nations, and requires both to allow inspections of nuclear sites.
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Putin acknowledged that US-Russian relations had “degraded”, but said that was “completely and utterly the US’s fault”, and accused the West of seeking “to finish us off once and for all”.
What did the papers say?
After a year of brutal war, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has “changed the world” in fundamental ways, said The Observer. Assumptions about peace in Europe and post-Cold War relations have been “shattered”; German defence policy has been revolutionised; US commitment to Nato has been reaffirmed; and a post-Brexit Britain has shown “it still has an international role to play”. But most important is what has stayed the same: Ukraine still stands, “unbowed and unconquered”.
As for Putin, much of his speech this week was devoted to his “familiar litany of accusations” against the West, said The Times – as well as boasts about Russia’s economic resilience and its “record harvest” last year. Only 90 minutes in did he “get to the point”: that Russia was suspending New Start. Clearly, Putin was hoping to “unsettle the West”, but the treaty was already looking fragile: Russia has blocked inspections since the start of the war.
Even so, this was another blow to “global security and stability”, said The Washington Post. Fortunately, Biden’s response in Warsaw a few hours later hit the right note: it was “a tough-minded pledge to stick by Ukraine” throughout what is indisputably the most dangerous moment in East-West relations in decades.
What did the commentators say?
Biden’s visit to Kyiv, unprecedented in modern times, was a high-stakes move, said Julian Borger in The Guardian. The US had given Moscow a “heads-up” before Biden arrived in Kyiv after a ten-hour train journey from Poland, calculating that Putin wouldn’t risk “all-out war” by making an attempt on his life.
But unlike past US presidents visiting Afghanistan, say, or Iraq, Biden was “putting his safety in the hands” of another nation’s army in an active “war zone”. It was a courageous act, months in the works, and stood in sharp contrast to Putin’s own reclusiveness.
The message was obvious, said Anne Applebaum in The Atlantic: “Despite a year of brutal war, Kyiv remains a free city; Ukraine remains a sovereign country – and this will not change.” But as he has made clear, Putin won’t readily accept it. He still has a tight grip over Russia (in the city of Krasnodar, police recently handcuffed a couple in a restaurant after an eavesdropper heard them complaining about the war), and remains convinced that the Western alliance will fracture.
What’s more, he reckons his army can “endure an infinite number of casualties”, and that Russia’s sanctions-hit economy, performing better than expected, can withstand more pain.
The fear is that he might be right, said Justin Bronk in The Spectator. True, Russia has suffered huge casualties (180,000 of its troops have so far been killed, wounded or captured in the war), but it is “still slowly taking ground back”, and 150,000 of the conscripts it called up last year are now being deployed to frontlines.
Western leaders who attended last weekend’s Munich Security Forum were certainly worried, said Gideon Rachman in the FT. Publicly, they “exuded confidence and resolution”; but in private, there were anxious discussions about how long the war will drag on, the fragile state of Ukraine’s economy, and whether Russia can be “forced to accept a peace on terms acceptable to Ukraine”.
There are also growing concerns that China might start supplying Russia with weaponry, and that US attitudes could shift in the run-up to 2024’s presidential election. For now, however, both Ukraine and Russia have reason to hope that “the other will crack”. And for that reason, “they both have an incentive to keep fighting”.
China has said that it will present its own peace plan for Ukraine this week, in a move met with deep scepticism in the West. China’s top foreign policy official, Wang Yi, met Putin this week in Moscow, where he said that Beijing was ready to strengthen its partnership with the Kremlin. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that Washington had intelligence suggesting that China is considering providing “lethal assistance” to Russia.
UK Defence Secretary Ben Wallace has warned that Ukraine could run out of ammunition if it doesn’t use it more sparingly. Ukraine is thought to be firing about 6,000 artillery rounds a day – more than its Nato allies can currently manufacture.
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