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March 26, 2022
Today, President Joe Biden ended four days in Europe with a landmark speech. After meeting with world leaders in Brussels, he traveled to Poland, where he visited American troops stationed there, met with humanitarian workers and refugees, talked with Polish president Andrzej Duda, and, finally, addressed an assembled crowd.
Biden spoke at the historic Royal Castle in the Polish capital of Warsaw, a building that was destroyed by the Nazis after the failed Warsaw Uprising of 1944, when the Polish resistance tried to throw off German occupation. The Polish government rebuilt the castle in the 1970s and 1980s, and it is now a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage Site, considered to be of “outstanding value to humanity.”
There, Biden began with the words of the first Polish Pope, John Paul II, after his election in October 1978: “Be not afraid.” Biden explained that those words were “a message about the power—the power of faith, the power of resilience, and the power of the people.”
Biden briefly retraced Poland’s struggle and ultimate victory against Soviet repression and tied that story to the history of the United States by nodding to former secretary of state Madeleine Albright, who passed away this week, and who had, he said, “fought her whole life for essential democratic principles.”
With this backdrop, Biden warned that we are again “in the great battle for freedom: a battle between democracy and autocracy, between liberty and repression, between a rules-based order and one governed by brute force.” Ukraine is at the frontlines of that battle.
“[T]heir brave resistance is part of a larger fight for essential democratic principles that unite all free people: the rule of law; free and fair elections; the freedom to speak, to write, and to assemble; the freedom to worship as one chooses; freedom of the press.”
“These principles are essential in a free society,” he said to applause. “But they have always…been under siege.” He noted that “[o]ver the last 30 years, the forces of autocracy have revived all across the globe,” showing “contempt for the rule of law, contempt for democratic freedom, contempt for the truth itself.” He called for democratic countries to work to stop autocracy.
Biden reiterated that Russia’s war on Ukraine is a war of choice that had “no justification or provocation. It was, he said, an example of using “brute force and disinformation to satisfy a craving for absolute power and control.” That is, he said, “nothing less than a direct challenge to the rule-based international order established since the end of World War Two,” and it threatens to throw Europe back into the old world of wars that the international rule-based order ended.
Biden outlined how the West has come together to try to stop Putin’s aggression. It has sanctioned oligarchs, lawmakers, and businesses to hurt the Russian economy. It has blocked Russia’s Central Bank from the global financial systems, even as more than 400 private companies have stopped doing business in Russia.
These economic sanctions, he said, “are a new kind of economic statecraft with the power to inflict damage that rivals military might,” and they are weakening Russia’s power to make war and to “project power.”
At the same time, the West has supported Ukraine “with incredible levels of military, economic, and humanitarian assistance,” that the Ukrainian people have used “to devastating effect.”
Biden reiterated that U.S. troops are in Europe not to fight Russia, but to defend our North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies. “Don’t even think about moving on one single inch of NATO territory,” he warned. NATO nations will defend “each and every inch of NATO territory with the full force of our collective power.”
He called on all the world’s democracies to help the Ukrainian refugees, and pledged that the U.S. would do its part.
The war has already been a strategic failure for Russia, he said. “The democracies of the world are revitalized with purpose and unity found in months that we’d once taken years to accomplish.” And people are fleeing Russia as President Vladimir Putin cracks down on protesters and shuts down the media.
Biden reassured the Russian people that they are not our enemies, noting that they, too, have reason to hate the war. Just days ago they were “a 21st century nation with hopes and dreams that people all over the world have for themselves and their family,” and now “Vladimir Putin’s aggression has cut you, the Russian people, off from the rest of the world, and it’s taking Russia back to the 19th century.” “This war is not worthy of you, the Russian people,” he said, and reminded them that “Putin can and must end this war.”
Turning to Europe, Biden said that turning to clean and renewable energy is a matter of economic and national security, as well as vital for the planet. He urged democracies to fight the corruption that has fueled Putin’s power. And finally, he said that the world’s democracies must maintain “absolute unity.”
“It’s not enough to speak with rhetorical flourish, of ennobling words of democracy, of freedom, equality, and liberty,” he said. “All of us…must do the hard work of democracy each and every day. My country as well.” His message “for all freedom-loving nations,” he said, is that “we must commit now to be in this fight for the long haul.” In the end, though, “the darkness that drives autocracy is ultimately no match for the flame of liberty that lights the souls of free people everywhere.” “We will have a different future—a brighter future rooted in democracy and principle, hope and light, of decency and dignity, of freedom and possibilities.”
“For God’s sake,” he said, “this man cannot remain in power.”
That last line seemed a logical conclusion to the argument Biden has been making about the struggle between democracy and autocracy, rallying democratic countries to stay unified against Putin as his troops smash Ukraine. But it prompted a flurry of media stories saying Biden had made a gaffe, changing his long-standing insistence that the U.S. is not engaging in regime change but rather is trying to defend Ukraine’s right to exist independently of Russia. A White House official clarified that “[t]he president’s point was that Putin cannot be allowed to exercise power over his neighbors or the region…. He was not discussing Putin’s power in Russia, or regime change.” Michael D. Shear and David E. Sanger of the New York Times noted that, however Biden meant the line, it underscored the difficulty of holding allies together against Putin while also avoiding an escalation of the war.
After the speech, the White House dropped on social media a cut of its section addressed to the Russian people… with Russian subtitles.