Biden: Putin ‘Badly Miscalculated’ in Invading Ukraine

Washington’s efforts to stop Moscow’s war dominate U.S. president’s State of the Union address.

By , a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy.
U.S. President Joe Biden delivers his State of the Union address
U.S. President Joe Biden delivers his State of the Union address
U.S. President Joe Biden delivers his State of the Union address during a joint session of Congress in Washington on March 1. Saul Loeb - Pool/Getty Images

U.S. President Joe Biden used his State of the Union address to reassert America’s role as a global leader, seeking to mark a departure from the isolationism of his predecessor and promoting his effort to unify America’s allies and punish a resurgent Russian autocrat who he claims poses an existential threat to the international order.

“American diplomacy matters,” Biden told a joint session of Congress in his first official State of the Union, announcing U.S. plans to close American airspace to Russian flights. “Putin is now isolated from the world more than he has ever been.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has forced Biden to recalibrate his priorities on the fly, elevating the importance of foreign policy for an administration that was assiduously seeking to notch successes on the domestic policy front, where its climate change and infrastructure initiatives have faced resistance from within his own party. He also finds himself shoring up European defenses, deploying American air, ground, and sea forces in the region to protect NATO countries and Russia’s Baltic neighbors, including Poland, Romania, Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia, at a time when he had expected to focus on managing China’s rise.

U.S. President Joe Biden used his State of the Union address to reassert America’s role as a global leader, seeking to mark a departure from the isolationism of his predecessor and promoting his effort to unify America’s allies and punish a resurgent Russian autocrat who he claims poses an existential threat to the international order.

“American diplomacy matters,” Biden told a joint session of Congress in his first official State of the Union, announcing U.S. plans to close American airspace to Russian flights. “Putin is now isolated from the world more than he has ever been.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has forced Biden to recalibrate his priorities on the fly, elevating the importance of foreign policy for an administration that was assiduously seeking to notch successes on the domestic policy front, where its climate change and infrastructure initiatives have faced resistance from within his own party. He also finds himself shoring up European defenses, deploying American air, ground, and sea forces in the region to protect NATO countries and Russia’s Baltic neighbors, including Poland, Romania, Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia, at a time when he had expected to focus on managing China’s rise.

“Six days ago, Russia’s Vladimir Putin sought to shake the very foundations of the free world, thinking he could make it bend to his menacing ways,” Biden said. “But he badly miscalculated. He thought he could roll into Ukraine and the world would roll over.”

The American president’s statement comes at a time when Russian forces, having faced some initial setbacks in the first days of the conflict, are reinforcing their front-line fighters, raising the prospect of a potential bloody and protracted siege of Ukraine’s two largest cities, Kyiv and Kharkiv. Putin is also allegedly introducing lethal weapons, including cluster bombs and thermobaric weapons—known as “vacuum bombs”—that suck oxygen out of the air.

The address largely bypassed foreign-policy challenges beyond Ukraine, referring only briefly to the issue of economic competition with China and largely ignoring the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America, except to highlight Biden’s effort to build up diplomatic support for his Ukraine policies from those regions.

The president emphasized his role in forging unity among members of the Western NATO alliance and in restoring the credibility of American diplomacy and intelligence, which has accurately characterized Putin’s intention to invade Ukraine in the face of constant denials by Russian diplomats.

“Putin’s latest attack on Ukraine was premeditated and totally unprovoked,” Biden said. “He rejected repeated efforts at diplomacy. He thought the West and NATO wouldn’t respond. He thought he could divide us at home, in this chamber and in this nation. He thought he could divide us in Europe as well. But Putin was wrong. We are ready. …

“As I have made crystal clear: The United States and our allies will defend every inch of territory that is NATO territory with the full force of our collective power.”

Biden touted his role in enforcing powerful economic sanctions against Russia, cutting off access to its foreign reserves and targeting its billionaire oligarchs, saying he would join Europeans in seizing their yachts, luxury apartments, and private jets.

He also sought to address concerns about rising prices at the gas pump, saying that the United States and its allies had released some 60 million barrels of oil, including 30 million from the U.S. strategic reserve. “We are going to be OK,” he said.

“Throughout our history we’ve learned this lesson—when dictators do not pay a price for their aggression, they cause more chaos,” Biden added. “They keep moving. And the costs and the threats to America and to the world keep rising.”

State of the Union addresses traditionally focus heavily on domestic matters, and Biden hit on a range of domestic policy issues, including rising inflation and the effort to move beyond the COVID-19 pandemic. But the conflict in Ukraine dominated the first half-hour of his speech. In an effort to highlight the importance of Ukraine, the first lady, Jill Biden, invited Ukraine’s ambassador to the United States, Oksana Markarova, to sit beside her.

“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,” the president said.

But the address underscored the persistent political divisions at home. Several Republican lawmakers, including Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Kentucky Rep. Thomas Massie, announced that they would skip the event because it would require them to take a COVID-19 test.

“I don’t have time,” Rubio said. “I only take a test if I’m sick.”

“I’m healthy, so I won’t be taking a test for COVID,” Massie tweeted. “So I won’t be attending the #SOTU.”

But the virus demonstrated that it hadn’t disappeared. Several lawmakers, including Rep. Jamie Raskin of Maryland, Rep. Suzan DelBene of Washington, and Rep. Lauren Underwood of Illinois, announced that they had tested positive for COVID-19 and therefore could not attend.

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

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