WARSAW — Three days of meetings between President Joe Biden and European leaders rose to a crescendo Saturday when the American president gave a major address in Poland that ended with a call for the Russian people to remove President Vladimir Putin from power. But Biden’s fiery words did not stop criticism from Ukrainian civil society leader Daria Kaleniuk, who tore into the U.S. leader for his response.
“While President Biden delivers a speech about democracy, people are dying,” said Kaleniuk outside the Royal Castle, where hundreds of people had lined up to watch the president’s address. “Our husbands, our friends … are now in Ukraine fighting for every inch of Ukrainian territory. This is what real democracy means.”
Biden said not to be afraid, she said, “but he’s afraid of Putin, to arm Ukraine, to win this war.”
The president, who has spent months rallying allies to support Ukraine and punish Russia through heavy economic sanctions, had moments earlier made Washington’s firmest declaration against the Russian leader, asserting that “for God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power” to a crowd of hundreds standing shoulder-to-shoulder before him.
“Every generation has had to defeat democracy’s mortal foes. That’s the way of the world,” Biden said. He called on the people of Russia to “fight the corruption coming from the Kremlin.”
While meeting with leaders in Europe last year, Biden agreed with Putin’s assessment that Moscow’s relationship with Washington was at a low point. That assessment turned out to be generous, with the United States and Western allies leaning into a punishing slate of sanctions that have pummeled Russia's economy and pried Europe's leading economies away from their long-standing economic ties with Moscow.
For more than one month, Putin has conducted a brutal assault on Ukraine, prompting Biden to call a string of meetings in Brussels and Warsaw to discuss the crisis and reaffirm the alliance’s unity.
“This battle will not be won in days or months either. We need to steel ourselves for a long fight ahead,” Biden said in remarks directed to the country’s leaders, the Polish people, “and I suspect some people of Ukraine that are here.”
Poland, which borders Ukraine to the east, has been at the forefront of the response, a hub for weapons, humanitarian aid, and a refuge for millions of Ukrainians seeking shelter.
Biden called for a “clear-eyed” response to the violence raining down just across the border, telling the world in remarks heaving with Cold War symbolism that Warsaw “holds the sacred place, the mystery of not only Europe, but humankind’s unending search for freedom.”
Touring a stadium earlier that day that has become a welcome center for refugees, Biden greeted fractured families who had fled the violence next door as Putin’s tanks rolled in.
“Each one of those children said, ‘Say a prayer for my dad or my grandfather or my brother,’” Biden told reporters Saturday. “‘He’s back there fighting.’”
The president said he had just met two people from Mariupol, a besieged city in the country’s southeast. Of Putin, Biden said, “He’s a butcher.”
In his remarks later that evening, the president called on the Russian people to stand up against their leader and told them that “the people of America will stand with you.”
The remarks won praise from people who heard an urgent moral clarity in the president’s words, though some yearned for him to lay out a path forward.
“His emphasis on the words of John Paul II, ‘Be not afraid,’… his statement that Americans will stand with Ukraine, that’s all good,” said Michal Baranowski, a senior fellow and the director of the German Marshall Fund’s Warsaw office. “But there was a bit missing, the how — how exactly we are going to make sure that Putin does not win.”
Biden’s pledge on Saturday followed days of back-to-back meetings with nervous allies who fear Moscow’s mounting aggression and want the U.S. to stand by them in the fight to support their neighbor to the east.
“That was not the speech of a guy who is going to press the Ukrainians to cut a deal with Putin,” said Daniel Fried, a former senior State Department official and U.S. ambassador to Poland. He said he hoped the White House didn’t try to explain away the president’s remarks calling for the end of Putin’s regime.
That process began almost immediately, with the White House reframing the American president’s comments as not a call for “regime change” in Russia but a statement on Moscow’s actions over its neighbors.
Biden has framed the war as Putin’s choice, casting the Russian leader as a tyrant who has driven his own people, unwillingly, to war.
But Baranowski said evidence shows that a large portion of Russian society supports the war.
“The truth is that this is going to be a long and difficult struggle,” he told the Washington Examiner after Biden’s remarks.
In waging that fight, the president has found a strong ally in Poland’s President Andrzej Duda, who attended the remarks after meeting with Biden at the presidential palace earlier that day. While the message from the U.S. and Poland has fissured on occasion, both leaders were united throughout the president’s visit.
The two sides have ceased talking aloud about the weapons support they are sending Ukraine, said Volodymyr Dubovyk, an associate professor of international relations at Mechnikov National University in Odesa, Ukraine. “That’s a good thing.”
A disagreement over sending fighter jets to Ukraine via a U.S. military base in Germany had exposed a fracture in the decision-making process when the Pentagon, fearing Russia could view the move as a direct confrontation, shot down Poland’s idea.
Earlier in the week, standing a few miles from where Biden met with trans-Atlantic powers and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky beamed in via video, the country's ambassador to the European Union, Vsevolod Chentsov, said the nation's expectations from the U.S. and its allies had been tempered.
“We do not expect NATO to step in militarily, boots on the ground. We don't even expect decisions about closure of the Ukrainian sky because we were explained it would mean direct confrontation with Russian forces which NATO member states want to avoid,” Chentsov said in remarks at the National Conservatism conference in Brussels. “But what is the solution? We are ready to fight.”
Ukraine’s 30-day resistance should blunt Poland’s nerves about a Russian attack, said Dubovyk.
By routing Russian army reserves, resources, and materiel, he said Ukraine had softened the potential blow of Russia reaching across NATO’s eastern flank.
“Ukraine bloodied their nose,” Dubovyk said. “That’s a huge benefit to everyone in Poland.”