Biden faces test of dedication to Ukraine — and democracy

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FILE - U.S. Vice President Joe Biden addresses the Ukraine Parliament in Kyiv, Ukraine, Dec. 8, 2015. The Ukrainian parliament thundered with applause as Joe Biden stepped into the wood-paneled chamber a little more than six years ago. Five hundred miles to the south and east, Russian troops and separatists were occupying parts of the country, and President Barack Obama had dispatched his vice president in a show of solidarity with the besieged nation.(AP Photo/Sergei Chuzavkov, Pool, File)

WASHINGTON – The Ukrainian parliament thundered with applause as Joe Biden stepped into the wood-paneled chamber a little more than six years ago. Five hundred miles to the south and east, Russian troops and separatists were occupying parts of the country, and President Barack Obama had dispatched his vice president in a show of solidarity with the besieged nation.

His voice rising, Biden declared that Ukraine could demonstrate that aggressors “can’t use coercion, bribery, sending tanks and men across a border to extinguish the dreams and hopes of a people.”

“For if you succeed” — Biden rapped his fist on the podium — “that message is sent around the world.”

Ukraine's government was unable to retake the land it lost, and now the world waits to see what message will be sent as Russia readies what might be a new, more expansive invasion that could end the nation's short history as an independent republic.

Such an attack would be the most difficult test yet for a president who has made the defense of democracy a cornerstone of his administration. If Biden's threats of sanctions, shipments of weapons and intelligence operations are not enough to deter war, his next challenge will be holding together a fractious international coalition to punish Russia both economically and diplomatically.

Biden spoke Friday with allies on both sides of the Atlantic, and he told reporters at the White House that he believes Russian President Vladimir Putin has decided to invade. Western officials estimate that Moscow now has between 169,000 and 190,000 troops in and around Ukraine.

Until recently, the U.S. president's long political career has paralleled democracy's expansion across Europe. Unlike Putin, a former intelligence officer who views the collapse of the Soviet Union as a cascade of indignities, Biden cheered the so-called color revolutions that swept through former Soviet republics and supported the eastward expansion of NATO.

Daniel Fried, a longtime U.S. diplomat in the region, said Biden is someone with "a belief in the free world — without ironic tones.”

“It’s not put on," he said. "It’s real.”

Now, decades of progress could be rolled back in dramatic fashion in a country where Biden invested years of work to hold the line against Russian aggression.

“He represents an older generation of American politicians who grew up in the Cold War and for whom the trans-Atlantic community is the center of gravity,” said Charles Kupchan, who served on Obama’s National Security Council and traveled with Biden when he spoke to the Ukrainian parliament.

Although Biden has tried to focus his foreign policy on countering China’s expanding influence, a peaceful and democratic Europe remains central to his worldview.

“All of that effort to deal with the rise of China has to be anchored on a group of likeminded liberal democracies,” said Kupchan, now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “That’s why he’s gone out of his way to build a united front.”

Although Biden spent decades engaged on foreign affairs as a senator, his focus on Ukraine sharpened as Obama's vice president.

Today's crisis began when the country's Russia-aligned leader rejected an agreement that would have strengthened ties with the European Union, angering a populace that saw a better future looking west than east. A subsequent uprising known as the Revolution of Dignity toppled Ukraine's government in 2014, rattling Putin.

He responded by seizing Crimea, a peninsula that juts into the Black Sea, and backing separatists in the Donbas, a region along Ukraine's eastern edge.

“Everyone was caught totally off guard," said Max Bergmann, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress who was serving in the U.S. State Department at the time.

A stalemate eventually took hold. Russian forces and separatists remained in control of parts of Ukraine, while a democratic government based in Kyiv, the capital, tried to carry on.

Biden traveled to Ukraine six times as vice president, and his work in the country is one of the major storylines of his 2017 memoir, “Promise Me, Dad."

He wrote that some warned him the situation would damage him politically because it “was bound to be a defeat for the West," but he “didn't much care.”

( It eventually caused headaches in a different way during the 2020 campaign, when President Donald Trump bludgeoned Biden with unproven allegations of corruption because his son, Hunter, served on the board of a Ukrainian gas company at the same time.)

Before his 2015 speech to the Ukrainian parliament, known as the Rada, Biden spent weeks developing his remarks and kept tweaking the text as he flew to the country. He described the government as struggling with twin threats of internal corruption and Russian aggression.

“Ukraine was at the crossroads of history,” Biden wrote, and he wanted “to remind the men and women sitting in the Rada that they were on the cusp of something extraordinary and — like all the most worthwhile things in life — extraordinarily fragile.”

A tactile politician who believes in the power of his personal relationships, Biden described feeling a connection with his audience.

“One thing I know from working with politicians and national leaders across the world is that they are a lot more like me than unlike me,” he wrote.

In his last mention of the country in his memoir, Biden wrote that its future remained uncertain — “It might take a generation or more to know if the Revolution of Dignity in Ukraine had truly succeeded."

Putin is trying to ensure that it does not. He's spent months ratcheting up the pressure on Ukraine, and U.S. officials accuse him of planning false flag operations to create a pretense for an invasion.

Timothy Naftali, a historian at New York University who has studied the Soviet Union, said the Russian president is using “the same playbook” as his Cold War predecessors.

“You had a series of Soviet leaders who would try to get their way by scaring us," he said.

Biden has declined to commit American troops to defend Ukraine, which would raise the possibility of war between the U.S. and Russia, two nuclear-armed powers.

But he’s moved additional forces into Eastern Europe, warning Putin that he would “defend every inch of NATO territory,” and he's pumped more American-made weapons into Ukraine, which is not a NATO member.

U.S. analysts and former officials praise Biden for rallying European nations to oppose any Russian attack, a difficult task when countries have varying political and economic interests.

“This is what it looks like when it’s working," said Fried, a distinguished fellow at the Atlantic Council whose decades-long career in the Foreign Service included a stint as the U.S. ambassador to Poland. "The French always have a different style. The Germans are always agonizing.”

Trans-Atlantic unity has been a priority for Biden since taking office, and Fried said solid relationships would make sanctions on Russia more damaging,

“If Putin is determined to start a war, he will start a war," Fried said. "But if he does, our job is to make sure it ends badly for his regime.”

Fiona Hill, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who served as senior director for European and Russian affairs on Trump's National Security Council, said an invasion could have ripple effects around the world.

"This is not just about Ukraine, it’s about a precedent that is set globally,” she said.

That's something Biden is anxious to avoid as he watches democracy face threats at home and abroad. He frequently warns that autocrats like Putin, who has claimed that “the liberal idea has started eating itself," want to demonstrate that representative governments can't function in the current era.

During a December virtual Summit on Democracy, Biden called such threats “the defining challenge of our time.”

By that point, Russia already had tens of thousands of troops on the border with Ukraine.


AP 's Tracy Brown contributed to this report.