US President Joe Biden has led a standing ovation for the embattled Ukrainian people in a rewritten State of the Union speech to assail Russian President Vladimir Putin for what he called his “unprovoked and premeditated invasion” of Ukraine.
“Let each of us if you’re able to stand, stand and send an unmistakable signal to Ukraine and to the world,” Mr Biden said late on Tuesday (US time).
It came as Ukraine’s Defence Ministry said Belarussian troops were stationed close to their border with Ukraine in Wednesday’s dawn, ready for deployment with the Russian invaders.
The country, a close ally of Russia, has has already been used as a staging post by Russian forces.
Also on Wednesday, CNN reported that Russian troops appeared to have taken the southern Ukraine city of Kherson. On Tuesday afternoon Mayor Igor Kolykhaie posted on Facebook that the city was under attack.
“Residential buildings and urban facilities are burning,” he wrote.
“We are NOT military! But I will hold the city and its functioning as long as I can. If the Russian soldiers and their leadership hear me. I ask: Leave our city, stop shelling the civilians. You have already taken everything you wanted. Including human lives.”
Hours later, however, video obtained by CNN showed Russian military vehicles at a roundabout in northern Kherson. There were also shots of Russian military vehicles parked on Svobody Square in central Kherson.
In the US, Democrats and Republicans rose to applaud their support for Ukraine, many waving Ukrainian flags and cheering in the chamber of the House of Representatives at Mr Biden’s first formal State of the Union speech.
In a deviation from his prepared remarks, Mr Biden said of Mr Putin: “He has no idea what’s coming.”
He said the US will join other nations and the European Union in banning Russian flights from American airspace.
Mr Biden also said Mr Putin “alone is to blame” for the Ukrainian invasion and promised that the Russian leader “will pay a continuing high price over the long run”. But he had a warning for the oligarchs and other corrupt officials “who have bilked [stolen] billions of dollars off this violent regime”, promising to work with European allies to seize Russian yachts, jets and other luxury items.
“We are coming for your ill-begotten gains,” Mr Biden said.
The US and EU have already released lists of oligarchs against whom sanctions have been introduced.
Mr Biden was looking to reset his presidency after a first year in office marked by rapid economic growth and trillions of dollars in new programs, but beset by the highest inflation in 40 years and a lingering coronavirus pandemic.
The annual speech to Congress gave Mr Biden a platform to highlight his agenda, reassure fretful Americans and seek to boost his sluggish poll numbers amid dire warnings his fellow Democrats could face losses in November congressional elections.
For the first time in months, members of Congress were not required to wear masks in the chambers to guard against the pandemic, a sight that could provide helpful optics for the President.
Ahead of Mr Biden’s arrival, the Ukrainian flags were passed out in the House chamber, the venue for his speech. Several women members of Congress arrived wearing the flag’s colours of yellow and blue.
Mr Biden’s challenge was to show Americans he is on top of the West’s response to the most tense period in relations with Russia since the Cold War ended 30 years ago.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has tested Mr Biden’s ability to respond rapidly to events without sending American forces into battle.
The US and its allies have launched withering sanctions against Russia’s economy and financial system, Mr Putin himself and his inner circle of oligarchs. More sanctions are being planned.
The crisis forced Mr Biden, whose chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan last year drew wide criticism, to reshape the speech to focus on uniting Americans around a global effort to punish Moscow and support Kyiv.
He launched heavy criticism of Mr Putin in his remarks, saying the Russian leader had badly miscalculated how events would unfold and that now “Russia’s economy is reeling and Putin alone is to blame.”
“He thought he could roll into Ukraine and the world would roll over. Instead he met a wall of strength he never imagined. He met the Ukrainian people,” he said.
“From President Zelensky to every Ukrainian, their fearlessness, their courage, their determination, inspires the world.”
Mr Biden said Mr Putin ignored efforts to prevent war.
“Putin’s war was premeditated and unprovoked. He rejected efforts at diplomacy. He thought the West and NATO wouldn’t respond. And, he thought he could divide us here at home.
“Putin was wrong. We were ready.”
In a show of support for Ukraine, first lady Jill Biden had as her guest at the speech the Ukraine ambassador to the US, Oksana Markarova, who travelled in the Biden motorcade from the White House to Capitol Hill.