Symbols matter: a Kennedy or a Reagan at the Berlin Wall, a Churchill with a cigar and a bowler, for that matter a green-clad Zelensky growling, “I need ammunition, not a ride.” Simply by taking the hazardous trip to Kyiv, Biden made a strategic move of cardinal importance.
While the president clearly intended to bolster the confidence of Ukraine, and the commitment of ambivalent Europeans and neo-isolationist Americans, his real audiences lay elsewhere, as his remarks about Western strength indicated. Russia has cycled through a series of theories of victory in Ukraine—that Kyiv’s leaders would flee, that Ukraine’s population would not fight, that its army would be crumpled up by a sudden blitz or by grinding assaults. It has been reduced to one last hope: that Vladimir Putin’s will is stronger than Joe Biden’s. And Biden just said, by deed as well as word, “Oh no it’s not.”
This is a gut punch to Russia’s leader. The Russians received word of the trip, we are informed—and presumably the threat, stated or implied, that they would get a violent and overwhelming response if they attempted to interfere with it. For a leader obsessed with strength, like Putin, that is a blow. His own people will quietly or openly ask, “Why could we not prevent this?” And the answer, unstated, will have to be, “Because we were afraid.”
The visual contrast between an American president with his signature aviator sunglasses walking in sunny downtown Kyiv with the pugnacious and eloquent president of Ukraine and a Russian president who has yet to visit the war zone is also striking. Not to mention the difference between an American president who mingles with others, shaking hands, hugging and slapping backs, and a Russian president who keeps his subordinates at a physical distance, and who has to be surrounded by flunkies and actors when he supposedly meets with normal people. No belligerent words from the Kremlin will change those visual images, which will be seen in Russia as well as around the world.
This was not a stunt, but rather an act of statesmanship. [Continue reading…]