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Biden speaks in Poland, backs Ukraine in Russia war

U.S. President Joe Biden stands onstage with children waving flags after he delivered remarks ahead of the one year anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, outside the Royal Castle, in Warsaw, Poland, February 21, 2023.

Evelyn Hockstein | Reuters

WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden spoke to a crowd of thousands in Warsaw, Poland, on Tuesday to mark the coming one-year mark since Russia invaded Ukraine, vowing to support beleaguered Ukraine and placing the war in the broader context of a struggle between authoritarianism and democracy.

“One year ago, the world was bracing for the fall of Kyiv,” Biden said at the Warsaw Royal Castle Gardens as the crowd waved Polish flags. “Well I’ve just come from a visit to Kyiv and I can report Kyiv stands strong, Kyiv stands proud, it stands tall and most important, it stands free.”

Biden’s remarks follow a surprise 23-hour visit to Ukraine’s war-weary capital on Monday. Under extraordinary secrecy, Biden traveled by plane, then by train for 10 hours overnight to stand shoulder-to-shoulder in solidarity with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

The one-year anniversary of the invasion is Friday.

Tuesday’s speech struck a similar tone to others Biden has made, including one he gave in Warsaw nearly a year ago. Since his 2020 presidential campaign, Biden has posited himself as a champion of democracy, arguing the U.S. and world is at a crossroads.

“When President Putin ordered his tanks to roll into Ukraine he thought we would roll over. He was wrong,” Biden said. “He thought NATO would fracture and divide. Instead NATO is more united, more unified than ever before.”

The remarks further highlighted the U.S. commitment to Ukraine, which aims to repel a renewed Russian assault that began shortly before the one-year anniversary of the conflict.

“One year into this war, Putin no longer doubts the strength of our coalition, but he still doubts our conviction. He doubts our staying power,” Biden said. “But there should be no doubt, our support for Ukraine will not waiver. NATO will not be divided and we will not tire.”

U.S. President Joe Biden and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy meet in Kyiv, Ukraine on February 20, 2023.

Presidency of Ukraine | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

Biden, who flew aboard a militarized Boeing 757 in the predawn hours on Sunday, arrived in Kyiv some 20 hours later to meet Zelenskyy and first lady Olena Zelenska.

“This was a risk that Joe Biden wanted to take,” White House communications director Kate Bedingfield said.

National security advisor Jake Sullivan called the visit “historic” and “unprecedented in modern times.” He said the Kremlin had advance notice that Biden would travel to Kyiv.

While in Kyiv, the U.S. president announced a new weapons package for Ukraine worth about $500 million. The Pentagon said the aid will come directly from its arsenals, and will include additional ammunition for High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems, or HIMARS, along with Javelins, tactical vehicles and anti-armor rockets.

The latest military aid package, the 32nd such installment, brings U.S. military aid commitment to nearly $30 billion since Moscow invaded Ukraine last February. To date, the U.S. has contributed the lion’s share of Western weapons to Ukraine and deployed hundreds of thousands of American service members to NATO-member countries to bolster defenses.

A Ukrainian service member holds a next generation light anti-tank weapon (NLAW) at a position on the front line in the north Kyiv region, Ukraine March 24, 2022.

Gleb Garanich | Reuters

In addition, the 30-member-strong group has consistently warned Russian President Vladimir Putin that an attack on one NATO member state will be viewed as an attack on all, triggering the organization’s cornerstone Article 5. Ukraine has sought membership in the world’s most powerful military alliance since 2002 and is bordered by four NATO allies: Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania. 

Biden’s speech also came hours after Putin spoke in front of a joint session of the country’s Parliament. He framed the war sparked by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as a fight against the West.

Biden rebutted Putin’s statement in his speech, directly addressing the Russian people at one point.

“Tonight I speak once more again to the people of Russia: The United States and the people of Europe do not seek to control or destroy Russia,” Biden said. “The West was not planning to attack Russia. Millions of Russian citizens who only want to live in peace with their neighbors are not the enemy.”

Putin also announced Russia would suspend its participation in the New START Treaty, the sole remaining major nuclear agreement between Russia and the U.S.

Mounting crimes against humanity

Since Russia’s full-scale invasion of its ex-Soviet neighbor, the war has claimed the lives of more than 8,000 civilians and led to nearly 13,300 injuries, according to U.N. estimates.

“Our data is only the tip of the iceberg,” United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Turk said in a statement Tuesday releasing the figures.

“The toll on civilians is unbearable. Amid electricity and water shortages during the cold winter months, nearly 18 million people are in dire need of humanitarian assistance. Some 14 million people have been displaced from their homes,” he added.

Turk said that about 90% of the civilian casualties recorded were caused by the use of explosive weapons with a wide impact area. He added the actual figures are likely substantially higher because armed conflict can delay fatality reports.

“Brutality will never grind down the will of the free,” Biden said Tuesday, “and Ukraine will never be a victory for Russia. Never.”

The U.S. and international organizations have also outlined widespread allegations of war crimes committed by Russia in the last year. Over the weekend, Vice President Kamala Harris said the U.S. has determined Russian forces have committed “crimes against humanity” in Ukraine.

“Russian forces have pursued a widespread and systemic attack against a civilian population — gruesome acts of murder, torture, rape and deportation,” Harris said in remarks before the Munich Security Conference on Saturday.

“We have examined the evidence. We know the legal standards. And there is no doubt. These are crimes against humanity,” Harris said, adding that those responsible and those complicit “will be held to account.”

War crime prosecutor of Kharkiv Oblast stands with forensic technician and policeman at the site of a mass burial in a forest during exhumation on September 16, 2022 in Izium, Ukraine.

Yevhenii Zavhorodnii | Global Images Ukraine | Getty Images News | Getty Images

During his speech Tuesday, Biden also accused Russia of widespread crimes against humanity.

“This has been an extraordinary year in every sense,” Biden said. “Extraordinary brutality from Russia’s forces and mercenaries. They’ve committed depravities, crimes against humanity without shame or compunction. They’ve targeted civilians with death and destruction. Used rape as a weapon of war. Stolen Ukrainian children in an attempt to seal Ukraine’s future.”

Earlier this month, Ukraine’s prosecutor general, Andriy Kostin, said that regional authorities have logged more than 65,000 Russian war crimes since Moscow invaded Ukraine nearly a year ago.

Kostin said his teams have also documented more than 14,000 Ukrainian children forced into adoption in Russia.

“This is a direct policy aimed at demographic change by cutting out Ukrainian identity,” Kostin told an audience at Georgetown Law School in Washington.

“These actions are characteristics of the crime of genocide,” he added.

Russia has repeatedly denied its troops have committed war crimes or deliberately targeted civilians in attacks.

Last year, the Biden administration said it suspected that between 900,000 and 1.6 million Ukrainian citizens, including 260,000 children, had been detained and deported from their homes to Russia. At the time, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the conduct may breach international humanitarian agreements and constitute war crimes.

“No one, no one can turn away their eyes from the atrocities Russia’s committing against the Ukrainian people,” Biden said Tuesday. “It’s abhorrent. It’s abhorrent.”

The 1949 Geneva Conventions define international legal standards and protections for humanitarian treatment during wartime and explicitly prohibit mass forced transfers of civilians.

Blinken accused Moscow of ordering the “disappearance” of thousands of Ukrainian civilians who do not pass the dehumanizing “filtration” process of the deportation procedure.

The filtration camps, which have been previously described as large makeshift tents, are initial reception areas where deported Ukrainians are photographed, fingerprinted, stripped, forced to turn over their mobile phones, passwords as well as identification, and then interrogated and sometimes tortured by Russian authorities.

Read more: UN report details horrifying Ukrainian accounts of rape, torture and executions by Russian troops

Blinken also outlined at the time that there was “mounting” evidence of Russian forces deliberately separating Ukrainian children from their parents, abducting children from orphanages, confiscating Ukrainian passports and issuing Russian passports for what is an “apparent effort to change the demographic makeup of parts of Ukraine.”

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