Presidents Biden and Putin in Single Combat

February 27, 2023

Last Monday in an article titled, “Biden’s Surreal and Secretive Journey into a War Zone”by Peter Baker and Michael D. Shear, the New York Times shared some details of President Biden’s visit to Ukraine with the reader.[i] It said the president played his part in the ruse which included a dinner at the Red Hen restaurant with the First Lady where they enjoyed the rigatoni before going back to the White House, hours before his departure for Europe. And that was just the beginning.

It was clear by all indications that the administration was determined to make Mr. Biden’s visit to Kyiv an epic episode of his presidency.

Many other Western heads of government and state have visited Kyiv since the Russian invasion and none has received so much attention. But the article offered a clue. It said:

“Never in Mr. Biden’s lifetime had a president ventured into a war zone that was not under the control of American forces, much less on a relatively slow-moving locomotive that would take nine and a half hours to reach its destination. During that time, he was potentially exposed to circumstances beyond the control of the hypervigilant security phalanx that normally seeks to shield a commander in chief from every conceivable physical danger and minimize his time outside a hardened shelter.” (Emphasis added)

Russia and the US are not formally at war, but in reality, except for American troops on the battlefield, the two powers are at war. Thus, President Biden was traveling to Kyiv as the commander-in-chief not only of the US but also of the West. That was the image projected.

Last Tuesday Presidents Biden and Putin exchanged fiery speeches. It seemed as if both had already seen the speaking notes of the other and prepared their response.

President Biden, having united the West sounded victorious. At the Royal Castle in Warsaw, he declared:

“One year ago, the world was bracing for the fall of Kyiv.  Well, I have just come from a visit to Kyiv, and I can report: Kyiv stands strong!  (Applause.)  Kyiv stands proud.  It stands tall.  And most important, it stands free.  (Applause.)…

“He thought he’d get the Findalization [Finlandization] of NATO.  Instead, he got the NATOization of Finland — and Sweden.  (Applause.)

“He thought NATO would fracture and divide.  Instead, NATO is more united and more unified than ever — than ever before.”

President Putin, having failed with his blitzkrieg against Kyiv sounded rancorous. Before the Federal Assembly for his annual address, he said “The Western elite make no secret of their goal, which is, I quote, “Russia’s strategic defeat.” What does this mean to us? This means they plan to finish us once and for all. In other words, they plan to grow a local conflict into a global confrontation. This is how we understand it and we will respond accordingly, because this represents an existential threat to our country.”

Further complicating the picture was Secretary Blinken’s remarks that China was considering sending lethal military supplies to Russia, joint Chinese-Russia-South African naval exercises off the coasts of South Africa, and China’s top diplomat Wang Yi’s visit to Moscow for talks with the Russian leader.

President Biden, underlining a “global coalition” against Russia, has often said that the war is not just about freedom in Ukraine, but about freedom and democracy at large. However, to what extent such a coalition exists remains a question. In a Washington Post article titled, “A global divide on the Ukraine war is deepening”, Liz Sly said that Russia capitalizes on disillusionment with the US to win sympathy in the Global South.[ii]

At the last Munich Security Conference both Chancellor Scholz and President Macron made similar observations.

On October 12, 2022, the UN General Assembly passed a resolution calling on Moscow to reverse course on its “attempted illegal annexation”.

The results were 143 Member States in favor, with five voting against, and 35 abstentions. The countries who voted against were Belarus, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Nicaragua, Russia, and Syria. A majority of those countries abstaining were African nations, alongside China and India.

Since then, Resolution ES‑11/4 has been used by Washington and its allies as evidence of a “global coalition” against Russia. But the votes in favor of the Resolution reflected, more than anything else, a commitment to the rules of international law as reflected in the UN Charter. They did not mean support for a protracted war with an adverse impact on global stability, economy, food and energy security.

Last Thursday, the UN General Assembly once again called for ending the war in Ukraine and demanded Russia’s immediate withdrawal from the country, in line with the UN Charter. The voting was very similar to last year’s. And the message of the majority was the same: “End the war.” The travel expenses of the US State Department may have skyrocketed, but the picture in the Global South has not changed.

The West has shown unity against Russia. But whether the West would display the same solidarity in a standoff or confrontation with China, declared a “strategic competitor” by NATO, begs the question. In such a case, the Global South is more than likely to sit on the fence and once again call for peace, but probably would identify more with Beijing than the West. Because China does not have a colonial past and has not engaged in regime change projects.

During the past weeks, there were reports in the West that China would table a peace plan for Ukraine. Since China avoids getting involved in international disputes, at first look this seemed unlikely. However, on the anniversary of the Russian invasion, China published a position paper titled, “China’s Position on the Political Settlement of the Ukraine Crisis”.[iii] This is not a detailed peace plan but a summary of the principles that Beijing says should govern international relations and show the path toward ending the war in Ukraine. Russia Matters says that “China’s “peace plan” for Ukraine, vague on how peace can be attained, sends clear signals that Beijing’s support for Moscow is neither univocal nor limitless”.[iv]

Secretary Blinken has said China has been trying to have it both ways; on the one hand, trying to present itself publicly as neutral and seeking peace, while at the same time talking up Russia’s false narrative about the war. He further said China is providing Russia with nonlethal assistance through its companies, and now contemplating lethal assistance.[v] And, President Lukashenko’s upcoming state visit to China from February 28 to March 2 will lead to more criticism.

Nonetheless, President Zelensky has said he plans to meet China’s leader Xi Jinping to discuss Beijing’s proposals on ending the war in Ukraine. Considering the lack of alternatives that is good news and may open the door for Beijing to engage for the first time in a peace-making mission as a global power. After all, every endeavor for a cease-fire, every initiative designed to end a conflict that is likely to turn into a protracted war, deserves an opportunity.  








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