With Russian President Vladimir Putin continuing to rage war in Ukraine for over a year now, President Joe Biden’s surprise visit to Kyiv and his two days in Warsaw last week signaled that the U.S. will continue to lead the efforts of the free world toward supporting Ukraine for it to win “in the great battle for freedom.”
.It’s significant that Biden’s travels came on and around President’s Day – the national holiday that honors its chief executives. From day one of the war, his decisions and positions channeled his predecessors. They’ll not only shape the history of his presidency, but Europe (and the world’s) postwar transformation.
Biden is the first American president since Woodrow Wilson to appear on the global stage during war in Europe with a mission to decidedly defend an East European nation from an aggressive neighbor threatening its sovereignty. Wilson’s progressive ideals translated into his foreign policy – self-determination was a democratic vindication for small nations against large empires. Where Wilson was committed to a viable Polish state and its territorial integrity, Biden champions both for Ukraine. He backs supporting Kyiv for the same reason Wilson led the U.S. into World War I, “…because violations of right had occurred which touched us to the quick and made the life of our own people impossible unless they were corrected and the world secured once and for all against their recurrence.” Wilson’s grand strategy was a draft of the rules based order – i.e. free world – that Biden is defending today.
Several of Biden’s policies, like the Lend-Lease Act speeding up the delivery of arms to Ukraine or revitalizing the Atlantic Charter as a tool for cooperation against emerging global challenges and rivals, echo Franklin D. Roosevelt. During World War II, the Yalta agreement reached in February 1945 between FDR, Winston Churchill, and Joseph Stalin egregiously sealed the fate of Poland and Central Europe for decades. Postwar Poland became a bell weather in the global showdown between democracy and autocracy. Today it’s Ukraine.
Biden is backing his principle of supporting Kyiv with the power of a U.S.-led alliance to make good on it, sending a message of Western strength and unity. He also drew a key lesson from the bad deal at Yalta. With the threat of Putin invading Ukraine looming and throughout the war, Biden invoked words Bill Clinton delivered in 1997 to the people of Central Europe, “nothing about you, without you” – conveying a policy that no decisions would be made over the head of Kyiv or the other capitals of East Central Europe.
During the Cold War, West Germany was a pivotal ally for U.S. policy and strategy designed to contain the spread of communism in a divided Europe. Berlin was a potential flashpoint for armed conflict between East and West. It was the backdrop of historic speeches by John F. Kennedy (June 1963) and Ronald Reagan (June 1987) that emphasized the rights of people to be free from the grip of empires.
The important political and military role played by West Germany now falls on Poland during a time when transatlantic security and European stability are under threat. Besides being the largest NATO and European Union member state bordering Ukraine and serving as a critical logistical point for military and humanitarian aid, Warsaw is where Europe’s center of gravity is shifting. It was here where Biden emphasized how this century is a battle for freedom against revived forces of autocracy all across the globe. His visiting the Polish capital in March 2022 and again this year shows that U.S. strategic thinking includes East Central Europe. It signals that Poland can and likely will play a critical role in America’s strategic success of defeating autocracy in Europe by seeing a prosperous, democratic Ukraine within the European community, free to decide political partnerships as it sees fit.
In contrast, Putin channels past czars to guide his ideology of imperial aggrandizement and war with Russia’s greatest purported threat – the West. Ivan the Terrible created a despotic system that pacified political opponents and conquered neighboring principalities. Like Ivan, who dreamed of building a third Rome (following the fall of Constantinople), Putin seeks to fashion one out of today’s Russia. His decision to attack Ukraine in 2014 and again in 2022 echoes the policy of Peter the Great, who pursued close relations with Europe to enrich and modernize Russia, especially its army, only to turn his back on it. In the 18th century Catherine the Great effectively expanded her empire west by annexing regions inhabited by free and self-governing people – Poland and the Cossack Sich, the last trace of Ukraine’s political tradition at that time. She celebrated by commissioning a special medal with the inscription ‘that which was taken, was returned.” Putin seeks to return Ukraine – in his eyes taken by the West – back under Russian domination and honors troops accused of massacres in towns like Bucha with special medals.
With an upcoming presidential election in 2024, it’s evident that if Biden receives a mandate for another term, he’ll continue supporting Ukraine, doing what he emphasized during his State of the Union address – getting the job done. If he is unseated by a Republican challenger, it would be wise for the next president to channel one of the GOP’s greatest predecessors – Ronald Reagan, who helped America rediscover its core identity of stopping imperialism and leading the free world. His words once spoken about Poland are all the more true in the context of Ukraine, which is a nation “magnificently unreconciled to oppression.” Reagan managed the West’s showdown against Soviet autocracy, restoring freedom to the people of Central Europe and would not question the idea of aiding Ukraine (or anyone else under threat from autocrats) for as long as it takes to secure freedom and basic rights.
.Biden’s words in Warsaw were not only important for the Ukrainian people to hear or reassuring for those living in the region who know all too well the threat that Russian imperialism poses to their collective stability, prosperity, and livelihood. They also sent a global message – the U.S.-led coalition behind Ukraine has made it a duty to stop autocracy by defending an international order underpinned by freedom and democracy. “Appetites of the autocrat cannot be appeased; they must be opposed,” Biden said. This position is all the more important for the U.S. going forward, especially as China weighs aiding a fledgling Russia, pushing to upset rules and norms of global governance.