WASHINGTON: Vladimir Putin has badly misjudged the resolve of America and its European allies and he will pay for it, US President Joe Biden said in his state of the union address on Tuesday, as he pledged to punish the Russian leader, those around him, and Russia itself for his “premeditated and unprovoked” attack on Ukraine.
“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. But he badly miscalculated. He thought he could roll into Ukraine and the world would roll over. Instead, he met with a wall of strength he never anticipated or imagined. He met the Ukrainian people,” Biden said at the very outset of his speech, which came under a nuclear war overhang that has replaced the pandemic cloud.
Although it is customary for the US to have a “designated survivor” during the State of the Union address- someone stays away from the Capitol in a safe, undisclosed location in case of an attack that eviscerates the American leadership- the routine drew attention this year because of nuclear tensions. The designated survivor was Gina Raimondo, the commerce secretary, who is tenth in the presidential line of succession. The first two, vice-president Kamala Harris and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, flanked Biden during the speech.
A country that most Americans would be hard-pressed to find on a map leapt front and center in the US President’s annual report card, as he rode on the crisis to present a united front that has eluded his presidency so far, spending the first ten minutes of his speech on Ukraine. The Ukrainian ambassador to the US, Oksana Markarova, who was a guest of First Lady Jill Biden in the VIP box, was the cynosure of all eyes as Biden introduced her to sustained applause from lawmakers, some of whom waved small Ukrainian flags.
Biden then went on to outline a series of punitive steps, including closure of US airspace to Russia and other economic measures to inflict pain on the country, while warning the US and its allies would continue to sap Russia’s economic strength and weaken its military for years to come.
“Putin is now isolated from the world more than he has ever been,” Biden said, later throwing in a line that was not there in the prepared text- “Putin has no idea what’s coming.”
Biden said the US would specifically target “Russian oligarchs and corrupt leaders who have bilked billions of dollars,” revealing that the US Department of Justice is assembling a dedicated task force to go after the crimes of Russian oligarchs.
“We’re joining with European allies to find and seize their yachts, their luxury apartments, their private jets. We’re coming for your ill-begotten gains,” he warned.
The US President rounded off his hour long address with the familiar rousing assertion of American values. “We fought for freedom, expanded liberty, defeated totalitarianism and terror. We built the strongest, freest and most prosperous nation the world has ever known, before pledging, “Now is the hour. Our moment of responsibility. Our test of resolve and conscience, of history itself. I know this nation will meet the test. To protect freedom and liberty, to expand fairness and opportunity. We will save democracy.”
While the finale was greeted enthusiastically, Republicans were lukewarm on domestic issues where Biden has struggled to advance his agenda. The rightwing commentariat pilloried the address- written mainly by his chief speechwriter Vinay Reddy, an Indian-American- with Fox News’ Sean Hannity saying it is “seemingly written by a kid in kindergarten.”