WARSAW, Poland — US President Joe Biden on Saturday called the conflict in Ukraine a “strategic failure” for Moscow in a major speech in Warsaw.
Biden compared Ukraine’s resistance against a Russian invasion to the anti-Soviet “battle for freedom” and said the world must prepare for a “long fight ahead.”
“We stand with you,” he told Ukrainians.
Addressing ordinary Russians, he said that they were “not our enemy” and urged them to blame Russian President Vladimir Putin for the heavy economic sanctions imposed by the West.
He also warned Russia, “Don’t even think about moving on one single inch of NATO territory,” reiterating the “sacred obligation” of alliance members to defend their territory “with the full force of our collective power.”
At the start of his address in the Polish capital’s Royal Castle, one of Warsaw’s notable landmarks that was badly damaged during World War II, he echoed the words of the late pope John Paul II, telling Ukrainians: “Be not afraid.”
He vowed, “We will have a different future, a brighter future rooted in democracy and principle, hope and light.”
Biden also drew attention when he said that Putin “cannot remain in power,” dramatically escalating the rhetoric against the Russian leader.
Even as Biden’s words rocketed around the world, the White House attempted to clarify soon after Biden finished speaking in Poland that he was not calling for a new government in Russia.
A White House official asserted that Biden was “not discussing Putin’s power in Russia or regime change.” The official, who was not authorized to comment by name and spoke on the condition of anonymity, said Biden’s point was that “Putin cannot be allowed to exercise power over his neighbors or the region.”
Earlier in the day, as Biden met with Ukrainian refugees, Russia kept up its pounding of cities throughout Ukraine. Explosions rang out in Lviv, the closest major Ukrainian city to Poland and a destination for the internally displaced that has been largely spared from major attacks.
The images of Biden reassuring refugees and calling for Western unity contrasted with the dramatic scenes of flames and black smoke billowing so near the Polish border — another jarring split-screen moment in the war.
After meeting with refugees at the National Stadium, Biden marveled at their spirit and resolve in the aftermath of Russia’s deadly invasion as he embraced mothers and children and promised enduring support from Western powers.
Biden listened intently as children described the perilous flight from neighboring Ukraine with their parents. Smiling broadly, he lifted up a young girl in a pink coat and told her she reminded him of his granddaughters.
The president held hands with parents and gave them hugs during the stop at the soccer stadium, where refugees go to obtain a Polish identification number that gives them access to social services such as health care and schools.
Some of the women and children told Biden that they fled without their husbands and fathers, men of fighting age who were required to remain behind to aid the resistance against Putin’s forces.
“What I am always surprised by is the depth and strength of the human spirit,” Biden told reporters after his conversations with the refugees at the stadium, which more recently had served as a field hospital for COVID-19 patients. “Each one of those children said something to the effect of, ‘Say a prayer for my dad or grandfather or my brother who is out there fighting.”
The president tried to use the final hours of his European trip reassuring Poland that the US would defend against any attacks by Russia as he acknowledged that the NATO ally bore the burden of the refugee crisis from the war.
“Your freedom is ours,” Biden told Polish President Andrzej Duda earlier, echoing one of that country’s unofficial mottos.
More than 3.7 million people have fled Ukraine since the war began, and more than 2.2 million Ukrainians have crossed into Poland, though it is unclear how many have remained there and how many have left for other countries. Earlier this week, the US announced it would take in as many as 100,000 refugees, and Biden told Duda that he understood Poland was “taking on a big responsibility, but it should be all of NATO’s responsibility.”
Biden called the “collective defense” agreement of NATO a “sacred commitment,” and said the unity of the Western military alliance was of the utmost importance.
“I’m confident that Vladimir Putin was counting on dividing NATO,” Biden said. “But he hasn’t been able to do it. We’ve all stayed together.”
European security is facing its most serious test since World War II. Western leaders have spent the past week consulting over contingency plans in case the conflict spreads. The invasion has shaken NATO out of any complacency it might have felt and cast a dark shadow over Europe.
Warsaw, a city of nearly 1.8 million people, has grown by about 17% in a month as the refugees have come in huge numbers seeking shelter.
While Poles have so far welcomed Ukrainians, the humanitarian efforts are largely the work of volunteers. Warsaw Mayor Rafal Trzaskowski has warned it is not sustainable and that social services are buckling under the strain.
The US has been sending money and supplies to aid the refugee effort. This week, Biden announced $1 billion in further aid to Ukraine, in addition to accepting refugees.
The US and many of its allies have imposed multiple rounds of economic and other sanctions on Russian individuals, banks, and other entities in hopes that the cumulative effect over time will force Putin to withdraw his troops.
But no clear path to ending the conflict has emerged. Although Russian officials have suggested they will focus their invasion on the Donbas, a region in eastern Ukraine, Biden told reporters, when asked whether the Kremlin had changed its strategy, “I am not sure they have.”