US President Joe Biden has branded his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin a “dictator” facing withering economic and diplomatic isolation for invading neighbouring Ukraine, and warned the world is in a “battle” between democracy and autocracy.
As he delivered his first State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress and the American people, praising the Ukrainian “wall of strength” that has stood tall against Russian invaders, President Biden made clear there would be no US boots on the ground in the week-old war on Europe’s doorstep.
“Let me be clear: our forces are not engaged, and will not engage, in the conflict with Russian forces in Ukraine,” the Democratic leader said.
Mr Biden nevertheless levelled ferocious criticism at Mr Putin.
“A Russian dictator, invading a foreign country, has costs around the world,” Mr Biden said.
“In the battle between democracy and autocracy, democracies are rising to the moment, and the world is clearly choosing the side of peace and security.”
The West, led by tough new steps from Washington, has launched a fierce economic battle with Russia, unleashing a wave of sanctions that threaten to bring the Russian economy to its knees.
Taking aim at Russian oligarchs and “corrupt leaders” who Mr Biden said have bilked billions of dollars off Putin’s regime, the US president delivered a stern warning that the West will “seize their yachts, their luxury apartments, their private jets.”
“We’re coming for your ill-begotten gains,” Mr Biden said to applause.
Mr Biden went on to announce a ban on all Russian aircraft from US airspace, adding the United States to Canada and a host of European nations closing airspace to Russian airliners and other aircraft in response to the invasion of Ukraine.
Mr Putin, he said, had badly underestimated the powerful response his invasion would illicit from Western nations as sanctions inflict “pain” on Russia’s economy.
“Putin’s war was premeditated, totally unprovoked,” he said.
“He rejected repeated efforts at diplomacy. He thought the West and NATO wouldn’t respond. He thought he could divide us at home,” Mr Biden said. “He thought he could divide us in Europe as well.
“But Putin was wrong. We are ready. We are united.”
Mr Biden paid particular praise to Ukrainians who faced off against Russians despite an overwhelming military assault.
Mr Putin “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,” Mr Biden intoned. “He met the Ukrainian people.”
In a moment of bipartisan unity, US lawmakers gave a standing ovation to Ukraine, turning to the country’s ambassador to Washington, Oksana Markarova, who was seated in First Lady Jill Biden’s VIP box.
With many in Congress wearing yellow and blue in tribute to the Ukrainian flag, this was the easy part of the speech for Mr Biden.
But the 79-year-old, who faces rock bottom approval ratings and bitter opposition from Republicans still in thrall to Donald Trump, also hoped to try to ride the positive wave into trickier domestic territory.
Acknowledging inflation pain
One year into his presidency, the Democrat faces an increasingly disappointed and often outright angry electorate, largely due to the highest inflation in four decades.
Things are set to get even harder for his administration with polls pointing to Republican victory in November’s midterm congressional elections. This time next year, the chances are high that a Republican majority will face him when he takes the podium for the State of the Union.
“It feels like President Biden and his party have sent us back in time to the late 70s and early 80s, when runaway inflation was hammering families, a violent crime wave was crashing our cities, and the Soviet army was trying to redraw the world map,” said Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds in the official rebuttal from the Republicans.
But after months of trying to persuade Americans that inflation is on the verge of receding, Mr Biden this time reached out, stressing that he understands voters’ pain.
“Too many families are struggling to keep up with their bills,” Mr Biden said. “That’s why my top priority is getting prices under control,” he said.
To do this, Mr Biden relaunched his idea for a “make it in America” policy that he said would resolve global supply chain issues driving up prices, while restoring US manufacturing power.
This is the kind of centrist thinking that Mr Biden emphasised during his successful battle to defeat populist rightwinger Trump in the 2020 election.
He was back at it in another section of the speech where he shot down leftists of his own party, saying that the solution to police violence is “not to defund the police”.
“It’s to fund the police,” Mr Biden said in a message clearly aimed at middle-of-the-road voters alarmed at soaring violent crime rates across American cities.
Then, in a nod to the left’s criticism of racism and abuse among the ranks, Mr Biden said the secret was better training and tactics to “restore trust.”
Winning against Covid
Although embattled as he enters his second year in the White House, Mr Biden did come to the State of the Union with two strong cards.
Last Friday he nominated Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to be the first African American woman in history to sit on the Supreme Court.
And amid plummeting infection rates, Mr Biden was able to use his speech to try to pivot the country to a more optimistic, post-pandemic future.
Just days after the Centers for Disease Control finally eased mask recommendations for most Americans, Mr Biden said the long nightmare was just about over.
“Thanks to the progress we have made this past year, Covid-19 need no longer control our lives,” he said to a chamber that was not only packed but all but entirely unmasked.
The United States will “never just accept living with Covid,” Mr Biden said.
As he left the chamber, the veteran former senator embraced that post-Covid reality with one of his favorite activities – extended and energetic handshaking and chatting with massed politicians.