An American AWACS began patrolling the skies west of Ukraine last night; Kyiv was locked down this morning. Motorcades crisscrossed the city and rumors began to spread. But although it was clear someone important was about to arrive, the first photographs of President Joe Biden—with President Volodymyr Zelensky, with air-raid sirens blaring, with St. Michael’s Square in the background—had exactly the impact they were intended to have: surprise, amazement, respect. He’s the American president. He made an unprecedented trip to a war zone, one where there are no U.S. troops to protect him. And, yes, he’s old. But he went anyway.
Biden’s visit took place on the eve of the first anniversary of the outbreak of the war, and on the eve of a major speech to be delivered by Russian President Vladimir Putin. But the visit was not just a blaze of one-upmanship, nor should it be understood as the beginning of some kind of mano-a-mano public-relations battle between the two presidents. The White House says the planning began months ago, and the visit is actually part of a package, a group of statements designed to send a single message. The first part came in Vice President Kamala Harris’s speech at the Munich Security Conference last weekend, when she declared that “the United States has formally determined that Russia has committed crimes against humanity” and that Russia will be held accountable for war crimes in Ukraine. The next will be delivered in Warsaw, tomorrow: America will continue to stand by Poland and the rest of the NATO alliance, and no NATO territory will be left undefended.
The message today is about Ukraine itself: Despite a year of brutal war, Kyiv remains a free city; Ukraine remains a sovereign country—and this will not change. Jake Sullivan, the national-security adviser, put it like this during a press-conference call from Kyiv: “The visit today was an effort to show, and not just tell, that we will continue to stand strong.”
These messages matter because Ukraine is now engaged in a war of attrition on several fronts. [Continue reading…]