Joe Biden is due to give a “significant speech” on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Saturday after arriving in Warsaw, where he will meet with the Polish president, Andrzej Duda.
Biden and Duda are expected to discuss Warsaw’s wish for more US troops bolstering Nato’s eastern flank, as well as the idea of an international peacekeeping mission proposed by the leader of Poland’s ruling party, Jarosław Kaczyński. US diplomats have voiced scepticism about the idea, which Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, has criticised as “very reckless”.
US officials said on Friday that Russian forces in Ukraine appeared to have halted their ground offensive aimed at capturing the capital, Kyiv, and were focused on gaining control of the Donbas region in the south-east.
Russia’s defence ministry said the first phase of its military operation was “generally” complete, and that its forces would focus on the “liberation” of Donbas. The announcement was seen as an indication that after a failed month-long effort to subjugate Ukraine, the Kremlin may be having to considerably scale back its objectives.
Authorities in Mariupol have said as many as 300 people were killed in a Russian bombing of a theatre last week, putting a death toll for the first time on the deadliest single attack since Moscow launched its invasion, which has featured many attacks on apparently civilian targets and residential areas.
During a video address to European Union leaders, the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, confronted Hungary’s president, Viktor Orbán, who has for years been Vladimir Putin’s most staunch ally in the EU. The Hungarian government is not joining other EU countries in supplying arms to Ukraine, nor will it allow weapons to pass through its territory.
“Listen, Viktor, do you know what’s going on in Mariupol?” Zelenskiy said, drawing a line between the brutal bombardment and Hungary’s past. “There is no time to hesitate. It’s time to decide.”
Zelenskiy has said that with 16,000 Russian troops killed so far there must be serious conversations to end the war. Speaking late on Friday, Zelenskyiy reiterated Ukraine’s terms including sovereignty and territorial integrity, and underlined that conditions should be “fair”, declaring: “The Ukrainian people won’t accept otherwise.” Zelenskyy said 26,000 residents had been evacuated from Mariupol though “the situation in the city remains absolutely tragic”.
The US national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, said Biden’s address in Warsaw on Saturday would “speak to the stakes of this moment, of the urgency of the challenge that lies ahead, what the conflict in Ukraine means for the world, and why it is so important that the free world to stay in unity and resolve in the face of Russian aggression”.
The White House said Biden “will deliver remarks on the united efforts of the free world to support the people of Ukraine, hold Russia accountable for its brutal war and defend a future that is rooted in democratic principles”.
Biden told reporters in Brussels on Thursday that his visit to eastern Europe was designed to “reinforce my commitment to have the United States make sure we are a major piece of dealing with the relocation of all those folks, as well as humanitarian assistance needed both inside Ukraine and outside Ukraine”.
On Friday, Biden and the European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, announced that the US would provide “at least” 15bn cubic metres (bcm) of liquefied natural gas to the EU in 2022 to help Europe curb its consumption of Russian gas.
Biden has visited the Polish town of Rzeszów, about an hour’s drive from the Ukrainian border, in a symbolic show of support for eastern European states that are seeing Russian aggression wreak havoc in their neighbourhood.
During the visit, which the White House had kept under wraps until shortly before his arrival, the American leader got a first-hand look at international efforts to help the more than 2 million Ukrainian refugees who have found temporary shelter from war in their country in Poland, and met US troops bolstering Nato’s eastern flank.
Air Force One touched down at Rzeszów-Jasionka airport in Poland’s south-east shortly after 2pm local time. Rzeszów is about 105 miles (170km) from Lviv, the city that could become the de facto capital of Ukraine if Kyiv falls to Russian forces.
Wearing a black mask, the US president was greeted by the Polish defence minister, Mariusz Błaszczak, and a host of military generals – though not Duda, whose plane from Warsaw was turned back en route to Rzeszów and had to make an emergency landing due to technical problems. An official in his office said Duda had not been in any danger.
With the schedule of the visit flipped upside down, Biden first visited a barber shop at the G2A Arena next to the airport, where 14 US soldiers were sitting in folding chairs awaiting their crew cuts. At the adjacent cafeteria, a tieless US president joined service members tucking into a pizza lunch at six long tables.
Over a slice of pepperoni and jalapeño pizza, Biden regaled the paratroopers with stories about his late son Beau’s deployment in Iraq and his family in Ireland.
He later addressed a group of soldiers in more formal remarks, quoting the late secretary of state Madeleine Albright to underscore their significance of Nato’s role in the current crisis.
“The secretary of state used to have an expression. She said, ‘We are the essential nation,’” Biden told the troops. “I don’t want to sound philosophical here, but you are in midst of a fight between democracy and an oligarch.”
The 5,000-strong first main body of US’s elite 82nd Airborne Division, which specialises in parachute assault operations, has been based in Poland since 6 February.
The US troops’ presence in the area has been low-key, with them carrying out visits to orphanages and the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp site rather than displays of military strength visible to the local population.
After his meeting with the military, Biden was due to be briefed on the humanitarian situation on the Ukraine border by Samantha Power, the director of the United States Agency for International Development.
Poland has taken in more refugees from Ukraine than any other state in Europe, with the United Nations estimating their numbers to be at least 2.2 million.