By CHRIS MEGERIAN
Associated Press WASHINGTON (AP) —
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 another, 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 planned to speak
Friday with allies on both sides of the Atlantic as Western officials estimate that Moscow 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 Russian President Vladimir 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.”
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)