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Biden's State of the Union 2022 message: Unity against Russia

Biden's address focused on how the West's unity against Putin using sanctions is a source of power.
Image: Kamala Harris and Nancy Pelosi applauding in the background as Joe Biden delivers his State of the Union address.
Saul Loeb / AP

The most notable part of President Joe Biden’s State of the Union speech Tuesday night was its beginning: his forceful remarks condemning the Russian invasion of Ukraine. And fortunately he refrained from signaling strength with nationalistic bravado or threats of military escalation. Instead, he spoke about the power that has emerged as the West, united in its response to Moscow, has used nonmilitary tactics as a deterrent and a punishment.

“He thought the West and NATO wouldn't respond. He thought he could divide us at home in this chamber, in this nation,” Biden said, referring to Russian President Vladimir Putin. “He thought he could divide us in Europe, as well. But Putin was wrong. We are ready. We are united. And that's what we did. We stayed united.”

Biden’s points are more than hopeful rhetoric.

Biden recounted his administration’s scramble to get European allies on the same page regarding sanctions that the West could roll out in the run-up to the invasion. And he celebrated the striking speed and consensus with which the U.S. and its allies struck at Russia’s economy and diplomatic status after it began its incursion.

“Now that he's acted, the free world is holding him accountable, along with 27 members of the European Union, including France, Germany, Italy, as well as countries like the United Kingdom, Canada, Japan, Korea, Australia, New Zealand and many others — even Switzerland — inflicting pain on Russia and supporting the people of Ukraine,” Biden said. “Putin is now isolated from the world more than he has ever been.”

Biden’s points are more than hopeful rhetoric — Putin’s extraordinary maneuver really has been a distinctly unifying force.

While Biden spoke, he consistently received enthusiastic bipartisan applause in the chamber — a rare display of consensus in Washington these days. The parties aren’t perfectly aligned on Russia and Ukraine, but the degree to which they are is noteworthy. Many Republican leaders have effectively condemned or distanced themselves from former President Donald Trump’s lavish praise for Putin and his ridicule of NATO. While many in the GOP have used Russia’s attack as an (absurd) opportunity to argue that Biden was “weak” in the run-up to the invasion, they generally haven’t been clamoring for Biden to escalate with a use of force. For example, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, a hawkish Republican, has rightly warned against the (horrible and dangerous) idea of a no-fly zone over Ukraine as a path to “World War III.” Some Republicans instead have diverged from the administration in calls for harsher sanctions.

And unity between the U.S. and its allies around the world on questions of isolating Russia and aiding Ukraine has been crucial to their ability to deal a serious dose of deterrence in response to Moscow’s invasion. Leading up to the invasion, there was some hesitation in Europe to sanction Russia due to, among other things, Europe’s reliance on gas imports from Russia. But that apprehensiveness dissipated soon after the incursion began. As Vox’s Emily Stewart explains, Putin and his inner circle are most likely shocked by the speed and scope of the sanctions regime that has emerged:

While Russia may have anticipated the measures, what the country perhaps did not anticipate was for so much action to be taken so swiftly. The US and European allies have limited its ability to transact in foreign currencies such as dollars and euros, frozen the assets of multiple Russian banks, and cut off Russia’s banks from the SWIFT messaging system banks use to transmit information globally. Japan said it would join in freezing the assets of Russian leaders and some banks and freezing Russia’s foreign reserves in yen. Even Switzerland, a historically neutral country in conflict, has agreed to join sanctions efforts.

Now, unity isn’t an innately good thing — policymakers can always converge on an incorrect or immoral solution to a problem. And the U.S. must be wary of the fact that an unprecedented sanctions regime against a huge country in an interconnected economic system could cause tremendous amounts of suffering around the world and unintended economic consequences while failing to induce an end to war. But the fact that there is a rough consensus for the moment that sanctions are preferable to taking any kind of military actions that could spark a direct war with Russia — a powerful and nuclear-armed nation — is a good thing.