History, all sides agree, is being made this week in Ukraine. What’s not yet clear is how it will be written.
U.S. President Joe Biden gave his version during a surprise visit to Kyiv on Monday, declaring that democracy – aided by Western weapons – was winning the war for Ukraine, almost one year after Russia launched a full-scale invasion of this country.
Russian President Vladimir Putin will deliver his rebuttal on Tuesday, with Kremlin-controlled TV stations counting down the hours and minutes to a speech in which he is expected to lay out his country’s aims for the second year of this war that has already claimed tens of thousands of lives and reduced entire cities to rubble.
When Russia attacked last Feb. 24, many predicted that Ukraine could be forced to capitulate in a matter of days. The U.S., Canada and most Western countries shuttered their embassies in Kyiv and withdrew soldiers who had been training the Ukrainian military.
But the war took a twist as Russia was dealt a series of humiliating battlefield setbacks that forced Mr. Putin to declare a partial mobilization last fall, calling up hundreds of thousands of conscripts.
Russia is now believed to be on the verge of launching another major offensive, one that is expected to involve many of those new soldiers. Mr. Biden said Monday that the United States and its allies would continue to support Ukraine whatever comes next.
“One year later, Kyiv stands. And Ukraine stands. Democracy stands,” Mr. Biden declared in a Cold War-style speech that he delivered alongside Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky inside Kyiv’s Mariinsky Palace.
“Putin thought Ukraine was weak and the West was divided. He thought he could outlast us. I don’t think he’s thinking that now. He’s just been plain wrong. One year later, the evidence is right here in this room. We stand here together.”
Mr. Biden promised US$500-million in new military aid, which the White House said would come in the form of “critical equipment, including artillery ammunition, anti-armour systems, and air surveillance radars to help protect the Ukrainian people from aerial bombardments.” Mr. Biden also vowed additional sanctions targeting the Russian economy.
U.S. and Western military support has been vital to Ukraine’s war effort throughout the past year. U.S. and British-donated anti-tank weapons were critical in the early battle for Kyiv, which saw the Russian military eventually forced to withdraw from positions around the capital.
Long-range rocket and artillery systems later helped Ukrainian troops push Russian forces out of the eastern region of Kharkiv, as well as the southern city of Kherson.
With Russia believed to be preparing to go back on the offensive, Ukraine has been promised NATO-standard battle tanks, and is now asking for modern fighter jets to defend its skies.
Mr. Biden said Ukraine has suffered enormously over the past 12 months. Millions have been driven from their homes and Russia – despite the battlefield setbacks – still controls about 15 per cent of Ukrainian territory. “The cost that Ukraine has had to pay is extraordinarily high. Sacrifices have been far too great. We know that there will be difficult days and weeks and years ahead,” he said. “But Russia’s aim was to wipe Ukraine off the map. Putin’s war of conquest is failing.”
Earlier on Monday, air raid sirens sounded in Kyiv and across Ukraine as Mr. Biden and Mr. Zelensky took a brief and heavily guarded walking tour of the city centre. They moved under heavy security past the onion-domed St. Michael’s Cathedral, pausing to view a mural on its outer wall that bears the faces of some of the thousands of Ukrainians who have died fighting to defend the country’s independence from Russia.
The alarm was reportedly prompted by a Russian warplane taking off from an airfield in neighbouring Belarus, though no launches or explosions followed. U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said later that the White House had notified Moscow ahead of Mr. Biden’s trip.
Mr. Biden’s secretive train trip to Kyiv – his official schedule for this week said only that he was supposed to arrive in Poland on Tuesday for talks with that country’s President Andrzej Duda – came four days before the Feb. 24 anniversary of the start of the war.
The message Mr. Biden came to Eastern Europe to deliver will almost certainly be starkly at odds with Mr. Putin’s Tuesday speech. The Russian President is expected to address the problem he created last year by claiming to annex four regions of Ukraine – in addition to Crimea, which Russia illegally seized in 2014 – while Russian troops remain only partly in control of them.
Billboards seen in Moscow on Monday suggested that Mr. Putin would again seek to draw parallels between Russia’s war against Ukraine – which Mr. Putin falsely claims is controlled by “Nazis” – and the Second World War. “History always repeats itself,” read one billboard that mixed old photos of the Soviet Red Army with modern pictures of today’s Russian troops. “Strength is truth and the truth is with us!”
Tatiana Stanovaya, an expert on Russian politics at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, wrote on her Telegram channel that Mr. Biden’s visit to Kyiv will be interpreted by the Kremlin “as further proof that the U.S. has finally bet on Russia’s strategic defeat in the war, and that the war itself has irrevocably turned into a war between Russia and the West.” Ms. Stanovaya said that Mr. Putin’s speech “was already expected to be very hawkish, aimed at a demonstrative break with the West.” Now, she said, “there may be additional edits to toughen the rhetoric further.”
Mr. Biden is also expected to give another major address in Warsaw on Tuesday. It’s anticipated that he will build on the same themes he spoke of in Kyiv: the strength of the 30-member North Atlantic Treaty Organization and its support for Ukraine.
Mr. Zelensky was openly delighted to host Mr. Biden, the first U.S. President to visit Ukraine since George W. Bush travelled to Kyiv in 2008. “This will be remembered eternally,” Mr. Zelensky said of Mr. Biden’s decision to visit Ukraine in wartime.
Mr. Zelensky said the two leaders had discussed “the question of long-range weapons, and weapons which could be supplied which has hitherto not been supplied.” The Ukrainian President added: “This conversation brings us closer to the victory.”
Speaking to pool reporters in Kyiv, Mr. Sullivan did not detail any new weapons the U.S. or its allies might ship to Ukraine, but he said there had been a “good discussion” on the topic.
In Kramatorsk, the administrative capital of the front-line Donetsk region in southeastern Ukraine, Mayor Oleksandr Goncharenko called Mr. Biden’s visit surprising – “because it’s dangerous for him” – but said it was “important to show to the whole world, first of all to the Russian people and President Putin, that Biden supports Ukraine.” As air raid sirens blared in Kramatorsk throughout Monday, Mr. Goncharenko chuckled at the idea that Mr. Biden should also have visited his city.
The Donetsk area has been the war’s main battlefield in recent months, with Russian troops laying a bloody months-long siege to the city of Bakhmut, which is about 50 kilometres east of Kramatorsk. Russia has incrementally advanced into the outskirts of Bakhmut in recent weeks while also escalating attacks along other parts of the front line.
Mr. Goncharenko said his message to Mr. Biden would align with Mr. Zelensky’s. “Please give us more weapons, because otherwise it’s not possible to hold the front line in Bakhmut, or to think about pushing back Russian troops,” he said. “A lot of things will depend on the next developments of the situation in Bakhmut.”