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U.S. President Joe Biden is flanked by Vice-President Kamala Harris, left, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi as he delivers his first State of the Union address at the U.S. Capitol in Washington on March 1, 2022.SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

U.S. President Joe Biden said Russian leader Vladimir Putin must be harshly punished for the invasion of Ukraine to defend the democratic world against the rise of autocracy.

In his first State of the Union address Tuesday evening, Mr. Biden framed the war as an existential fight against authoritarianism.

“We, the United States of America, stand with the Ukrainian people,” the President told a joint session of Congress. “Throughout our history, we have learned this lesson: when dictators do not pay a price for their aggression, they cause more chaos. The cost to America and to the world keeps rising.”

Mr. Biden emphasized the unity of the Western alliance in imposing unprecedented sanctions on Moscow, vowing that Mr. Putin would come out of the struggle far worse off. He also announced further measures, including that the U.S. would join the European Union and Canada in closing its airspace to Russian planes, and seize luxury yachts belonging to oligarchs.

“Putin is now isolated from the world more than he has ever been,” the President said. “When the history of this era is written, Putin’s war in Ukraine will have left Russia weaker and the rest of the world stronger.”

He again pointedly ruled out sending U.S. forces to Ukraine, an acknowledgment both of Americans’ refusal to get into another war after debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan, and of the risks of escalation. Mr. Putin has already threatened to use his nuclear arsenal in response to Western sanctions.

“Our forces are not engaged and will not engage in the conflict with Russian forces in Ukraine,” Mr. Biden said, but pledged to fight Russia directly if Mr. Putin attacked a NATO country.

The President had originally wanted to focus the speech on the social-spending components of his Build Back Better agenda, which have been stalled in Congress. The address did contain exhortations to pass key measures of the plan: new spending on child care, health care, affordable housing and fighting climate change.

“Trickle-down theory led to weaker economic growth, lower wages, bigger deficits, and a widening gap between the top and everyone else,” Mr. Biden said. “I ran for office [on] … a new economic vision for America. Invest in America. Educate Americans. Grow the workforce. Build the economy from the bottom up and middle out, not from the top down.”

The President also celebrated his passage of a $1.2-trillion package of infrastructure spending, and touted his US$1.9-trillion fight against the global pandemic. “COVID-19 no longer need control our lives,” he said, promising new measures to make vaccines and tests more readily available in a bid to keep schools and workplaces open.

But the speech, coming the week after Russia launched its full-scale invasion and hours after Mr. Putin’s military bombed a Holocaust memorial site in central Kyiv, was dominated by Ukraine.

Mr. Biden led a standing ovation for the country’s ambassador to the U.S., Oksana Markarova, who sat with first lady Jill Biden. Earlier in the day, he spoke for half an hour with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Legislators carried Ukrainian flags, or wore shirts, jackets and scarves in its blue and yellow colours.

The President praised Ukraine’s resistance, which has inflicted repeated reverses on Russian forces.

“Putin sought to shake the very foundations of the free world, thinking he could make it bend to his menacing ways,” Mr. Biden said. “He thought he could roll into Ukraine and the world would roll over. Instead, he was met with a wall of strength he never anticipated or imagined. He met the Ukrainian people.”

The sanctions have rapidly escalated, in part because of Mr. Zelensky’s relentless calls for more action and in part because of significant behind-the-scenes discussions between Mr. Biden and other leaders.

The measures have cut Russia’s banks and government off from foreign currency reserves and debt markets, curbed the export of high-tech components such as semiconductors to the country, and frozen the assets of Mr. Putin and his cabinet. Even reluctant European countries have gone much farther than they previously signalled they would. Germany, for instance, has agreed to suspend the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia and send weapons to Ukraine.

Mr. Putin “thought the West and NATO would not respond” because “he could divide us at home,” Mr. Biden said. “Putin was wrong. We are ready.”

The crisis is a test of Mr. Biden’s promise to restore U.S. leadership on the world stage after the isolationism of former president Donald Trump. It is particularly vital after the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan last summer undermined Mr. Biden’s image as a steady hand.

The contrast between the President and his predecessor is particularly stark on Ukraine. Mr. Trump was impeached for withholding US$400-million in military aid to Kyiv in 2019 in a failed effort to press Mr. Zelensky into launching an investigation into Mr. Biden to tarnish his election bid. Mr. Trump has also repeatedly praised Mr. Putin and other autocrats, and tried to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election with false claims of fraud.

When Mr. Biden took office last year, he sold himself as the restorer of democratic norms.

“There’s a very important dovetail between righting the ship of state of American democracy, to leading the democratic world against the authoritarianism of Putin,” said Barbara Perry, a presidential historian at the University of Virginia.

The moment is also an opportunity to right the historical wrong of U.S. leniency toward Mr. Putin.

From the 1999 war against Chechnya to his invasions of Georgia and Ukraine in 2008 and 2014, respectively, Washington has offered, at most, relatively mild sanctions. As vice-president during Mr. Putin’s annexation of Crimea, Mr. Biden saw first-hand how little U.S. actions at the time did to deter him.

Yoshiko Herrera, a Russia expert at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said the U.S. long chose to court Mr. Putin’s co-operation rather than punish his behaviour. The U.S. relied on Russian acquiescence to its use of air bases in former Soviet states in Central Asia during the 20-year war in Afghanistan, for instance, and Moscow was part of the 2015 deal to curb Iran’s nuclear-weapons program.

“For a lot of Putin’s reign, the U.S. wanted his help on these other issues,” said Prof. Herrera. “If we look back now, yes we should have done something about him, but it was hard to do that in the context of the other priorities at the time.”

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