Biden and Putin Give Clashing Claims of Who Is to Blame on Ukraine

WARSAW — President Biden and Vladimir V. Putin laid out radically different visions on Tuesday for Ukraine’s future, offering sharply contrasting narratives about who is to blame for the bloody, yearlong war and seeming to agree on only one point: The conflict is nowhere near an end.

Mr. Biden repeatedly blamed Mr. Putin, the president of Russia, for dragging Europe back to brutality on a scale not seen since World War II: hundreds of thousands killed or wounded, and whole cities ruined. He accused the Russian leader of wide-ranging atrocities and called on the world to stand up to him and other “tyrants.”

“Autocrats only understand one word: No, no, no,” Mr. Biden declared, standing under a cold drizzle in front of an enthusiastic crowd of thousands waving American and Ukrainian flags at the royal castle in Warsaw. “President Putin chose this war,” he added. “Every day the war continues is his choice. He could end the war with a word.”

Mr. Putin expected Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, to fall to the Russian invasion, but “Kyiv stands!” Mr. Biden thundered, appearing energized by his surprise trip to that city the day before. But he added that the fight continued, and that there would be “hard and very bitter days, victories and tragedies.”

Ukrainian soldiers at a position in a forest near the front line in eastern Ukraine on Tuesday.Credit…Tyler Hicks/The New York Times

In Moscow, giving an annual state-of-the-nation speech earlier on Tuesday, Mr. Putin blamed the United States and its allies for turning the Ukraine conflict into a “global confrontation.” He evoked the high-stakes drama of the Cold War by announcing a suspension of Russia’s participation in the last remaining nuclear treaty with America, whose verification requirements his country had already been ignoring.

The Russian leader — much like his American counterpart in the dueling address — indicated a grim immediate future ahead in Ukraine, one where the grinding war is likely to continue for years, testing the patience of Russia’s people, business leaders and already bloodied military.

Mr. Putin spent much of the 100-minute speech on the nuts and bolts of preparing Russia for a long-term confrontation. He urged oligarchs to bring their money home, because he said Western countries could not be trusted. He promised changes to Russia’s education system, and to science and technology policy — dragging them back from Western-style approaches — to help the country outlast sanctions.

And though he did not acknowledge the heavy losses Russian forces have suffered, he pledged that soldiers and draftees taking part in the war would receive two weeks of leave every six months.

Mr. Putin underpinned all of that with his usual appeal to cultural issues, even citing the Church of England’s consideration of gender-neutral terms to refer to God.

The State of the War

  • Biden Visits Kyiv: President Biden traveled covertly to the besieged Ukrainian capital, hoping to demonstrate American resolve and boost shellshocked Ukrainians. But the trip was also the first of several direct challenges to President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia.
  • Nuclear Treaty: Mr. Putin announced that Russia would suspend its participation in the New START nuclear arms control treaty — the last major such agreement remaining with the United States.
  • In the North: A different sort of war game is playing out in northern Ukraine, where Russian shelling is tying up thousands of Ukrainian troops that might otherwise defend against attacks farther south.
  • Portending a Global Rift: Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said that China is strongly considering giving military aid to Russia, a move that would transform the war into a struggle involving three superpowers.

“Millions of people in the West understand that they are being led to a real spiritual catastrophe,” Mr. Putin said, though he did not mention Mr. Biden by name. “The elites, one must say, are simply going crazy.”

In a photo provided by Russian state media, President Vladimir V. Putin prepares to give his address in Moscow on Tuesday.Credit…Ramil Sitdikov/Sputnik

Mr. Biden’s aides said the president’s intention was to mark Friday’s anniversary of the Russian invasion by celebrating allied solidarity and delivering the message that freedom and democracy were at stake on the battlefields of Ukraine.

But the split-screen moment was undeniable, as the two leaders spoke about 700 miles and a few hours apart. Mr. Biden did not call Mr. Putin a war criminal, as he did from Warsaw in March of last year, but he leveled a string of accusations against Mr. Putin, including taking Ukrainian children in an attempt to steal the country’s future, and for months cutting off exports of Ukrainian grain, causing a global food shortage.

“Putin tried to starve the world,” he said.

The speeches came at a critical moment. While the European allies have held together far more effectively than anyone expected a year ago, there were signs at the Munich Security Conference, which concluded on Sunday, that many European leaders are wondering whether they will be able to sustain the current level of spending on arms, government support and humanitarian aid to Ukraine.

Mr. Biden praised the spirit of the people of Moldova, a former Soviet republic, for having the resolve to “live in freedom,” and he recalled how Poles endured for decades “under the iron fist of Communist rule.” He suggested that Moldova, Poland and pro-democracy dissidents in Belarus, Russia’s authoritarian ally, represent the thirst for freedom in the face of oppressive regimes.

Mr. Biden acknowledged that there were real questions when the war started about whether the democratic nations of Europe and the world would rise to the challenge. Those questions, he said, have now been answered.

“Yes, we would stand up for sovereignty — and we did,” Mr. Biden told the crowd, which stood bathed in lights aimed at the centuries-old castle. “Yes, we would stand up for the right of people to live free from aggression — and we did. We would stand up for democracy — and we did.”

The president’s speech followed meetings with President Andrzej Duda of Poland. Mr. Biden called the relationship between their countries a crucial part of the success of NATO, which he called “maybe the most consequential alliance in history.”

Mr. Biden with President Andrzej Duda of Poland on Tuesday in Warsaw.Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times

Mr. Biden was scheduled to meet on Wednesday with the “Bucharest Nine,” the leaders of countries along the eastern flank of NATO, most of them sharing borders with Russia, Ukraine or Belarus.

In the most impassioned moment of the speech, Mr. Biden vowed to uphold NATO’s Article 5 defense pact. “An attack against one is an attack against all,” he declared. “It’s a sacred oath. A sacred oath to defend every inch of NATO territory.”

In Moscow, Russian officials were busy shoring up their most important international relationship as Wang Yi, China’s most senior foreign policy official, visited the Russian capital. Video released by the Kremlin showed Mr. Wang exchanging a friendly handshake with Nikolai P. Patrushev, Mr. Putin’s top national security aide.

Mr. Wang met with Western officials, including Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken, at the Munich conference last weekend, and promised that China would try to use diplomacy to end the war in Ukraine. But the televised portion of Mr. Wang’s meeting with Mr. Patrushev focused on Russia and China’s bilateral ties.

Mr. Patrushev told Mr. Wang that both nations were under pressure from “the collective West,” so that their deepening cooperation “is taking on special significance.” Mr. Wang said that Russia and China should “develop new steps of strategic cooperation in accordance with the changing situation.”

Mr. Wang will hold more meetings in Moscow on Wednesday, and the Kremlin has hinted at a meeting with Mr. Putin.

In Mr. Putin’s speech on Tuesday, the only major revelation was that he would not allow U.S. inspections to verify compliance with New START, a nuclear arms control treaty that is set to expire in three years. He did not signal any major change in how he would wage the war in Ukraine: There was no official declaration of war, no announcement of a new draft, and no new threat of using nuclear weapons.

Instead, Mr. Putin’s main underlying message was that Russians, and implicitly the Western coalition that opposes him, must prepare for the war — which he continued to call a “special military operation” — to last for years.

“We will solve the tasks before us step by step, carefully and consistently,” he said. Claiming that the West was trying to “shift a local conflict into a phase of global confrontation,” he pledged that “we will respond accordingly.” The more long-range weapons the West delivers to Ukraine, he said, “the farther we will be forced to move the threat from our borders.”

The confident picture presented by Mr. Putin drew plenty of applause from the ruling elites — regional officials, lawmakers, Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church — gathered in a hall across Red Square from the Kremlin. It ignored Russia’s repeated setbacks at the front and its bloody, slow-moving efforts to eke out territorial gains in eastern Ukraine.

A photo released by Russian state media shows officials and lawmakers applauding Mr. Putin on Tuesday, including Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church, center, and to his right, Dmitri A. Medvedev, deputy chairman of the Security Council.Credit…Maxim Blinov/Sputnik

His words signaled that Russia was prepared to intensify the fighting, but they sounded less ominous than the barely veiled threats he made several times last year about the potential use of nuclear weapons. Mr. Putin’s tone was more measured than that in his last major speech to the nation, in September, when he announced a military draft and said he was ready to use “all the means at our disposal to protect Russia and our people.”

“Everything is changing now, changing very fast,” Mr. Putin said on Tuesday, referring to the consequences of war and of sanctions. “This is a time of not just challenges, but of opportunities.”

Mr. Putin suggested that time was on his side, because Ukraine’s people could still turn against their government and the West could face its own political upheavals. After listing examples of what he described as the West’s moral depravity, Mr. Putin said that many people around the world agreed with him.

There was no new policy evident in Mr. Biden’s speech, either, though the president promised new sanctions on Russia by the end of the week and said vaguely that “we will hold accountable those who are responsible” for the war.

He did not address the limitations of sanctions, which the West has discovered as China, India and Turkey, among others, have kept buying Russian petroleum products.

Mr. Biden thanked Poland for taking in 1.5 million Ukrainian war refugees and for becoming the primary transfer point for a flood of arms that have been critical for Ukraine’s military forces. But his rallying cry to the Polish people omitted discussion of the White House’s current worries.

Mr. Biden leveled a string of accusations against Mr. Putin and predicted that the Russian leader’s “craven lust for land and power” would fail in Ukraine.Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times

Mr. Biden and his aides are concerned that the war could be devolving into a stalemate, in which neither side will negotiate but neither can turn the tide.

He made no reference to Mr. Putin’s announcement about New START. Nor did he mention Mr. Putin’s episodic threats to employ nuclear weapons, usually uttered when Russian forces were losing ground.

But while the White House has tried at various points to make the case that the war in Ukraine is a battle for the preservation of some norms of national behavior — respect for the sovereignty of nations, and the right of populations to choose their leaders — he kept returning to Mr. Putin himself.

At one point he mocked one of the Russian leader’s core claims, that Russia invaded in self-defense. Mr. Putin said earlier in the day that NATO had been planning to attack Russia, presumably from inside Ukraine.

“The West was not plotting to attack Russia,” Mr. Biden said.

The war, he argued, was brought about solely by the Russian leader’s desires, but “President Putin’s craven lust for land and power will fail.”

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