An American AWACs began patrolling the skies west of Ukraine last night; Kyiv was locked down this morning. Motorcades crisscrossed the city and rumors began to spread. But although it was clear someone important was about to arrive, the first photographs of President Biden—with President Zelensky, with air-raid sirens blaring, with St. Michaels’ square in the background—had exactly the impact they were intended to have: surprise, amazement, respect. He’s the American president. He made an unprecedented trip to a war zone, one where there are no U.S. troops to protect him. And, yes, he’s old. But he went anyway.
Biden’s visit took place on the eve of the first anniversary of the outbreak of the war, and on the eve of a major speech to be delivered by Russian President Vladimir Putin. But the visit was not just a blaze of one-upmanship, nor should it be understood as the beginning of some kind of mano a mano public relations battle between the two presidents. The White House says the planning began months ago, and the visit is actually part of a package, a group of statements designed to send a single message. The first part came in Vice President Harris’s speech at the Munich Security Conference last weekend, when she declared that “the United States has formally determined that Russia has committed crimes against humanity,” and that Russia will be held accountable for war crimes in Ukraine. The next will be delivered in Warsaw, tomorrow: America will continue to stand by Poland and the rest of the NATO alliance, and no NATO territory will be left undefended.
The message today is about Ukraine itself: Despite a year of brutal war, Kyiv remains a free city, Ukraine remains a sovereign country—and this will not change. Jake Sullivan, the national-security adviser, put it like this during a press conference call from Kyiv: “The visit today was an effort to show, and not just tell, that we will continue to stand strong.”
These messages matter because Ukraine is now engaged in a war of attrition on several fronts. In the eastern part of the country, Ukraine and Russia are fighting an old-fashioned artillery battle. Russia sends waves of conscripts and convicts at the Ukrainian defenses, suffering huge losses and appearing not to care. The Ukrainians use up huge quantities of equipment and ammunition—one Ukrainian politician in Munich reminded me that they need a bullet for every Russian soldier—and, of course, take losses themselves.
But alongside that ground combat, a psychological war of attrition is unfolding as well. Putin thinks that he will win not through technological superiority, and not through better tactics or better-trained soldiers, but simply by outlasting a Western alliance that he still believes to be weak, divided, and easily undermined. He reckons that he has more people, more ammunition, and above all more time: that Russians can endure an infinite number of casualties, that Russians can survive an infinite amount of economic pain. Just in case they cannot, he will personally demonstrate his capacity for cruelty by locking down his society in extraordinary ways. In the city of Krasnodar, police recently arrested and handcuffed a couple in a restaurant, after an eavesdropper overheard them complaining about the war. The Sakharov Center, Moscow’s last remaining institution devoted to human rights, has just announced that it is being evicted from its state-owned buildings. Paranoia, suspicion, and fear have risen to new levels. Many expect a new mobilization, even an imminent closure of the borders.
This psychological war plays out elsewhere, too. Some Europeans, and indeed some Americans, have not yet adjusted their thinking to this Russian strategy. In Munich last weekend, it was clear that many haven’t yet accepted that the continent is really at war. The Estonian Prime minister, Kaja Kallas, told me she fears her colleagues secretly hope “that this problem will disappear by itself,” that the war will end before any deep changes have to be made, before their defense industries have to be altered. “Russia,” she said in a speech at the conference, “is hoping for just that, that we will get tired of our own initiatives, and in Russia, meanwhile, there is a lot of human resources and enterprises there work in three shifts.” Consciously or unconsciously, many still speak as if everything will soon return to normal, as if things will go back to the way they were. Defense industries have not yet switched to a different tempo. Defense industries have not yet raised their production to meet the new demands.
Biden’s visit to Kyiv is intended to offer a bracing contrast, and a different message: If the U.S. president is willing to take this personal risk, if the U.S. government is willing to invest this effort, then time is not on Russia’s side after all. He is putting everyone on notice, including the defense ministries and the defense industries, that the paradigm has shifted and the story has changed. The old “normal” is not coming back.