Was it a gaffe or an escalation? Biden prompts concern after saying Putin 'cannot remain in power'

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After four days of alliance building, emotional interactions with refugees and words about the need to fight for democracy, one sentence at the end of President Joe Biden's speech in Poland threatened to overshadow all of it as he deals with the most significant foreign policy crisis of his presidency.

“For God’s sake,” Biden said of Russian President Vladimir Putin, “this man cannot remain in power.”

Biden's aides quickly tried to walk it back, insisting the president was not promoting regime change when he spoke to a packed courtyard in the Royal Castle in Warsaw on Saturday.

"I think the president, the White House, made the point last night that, quite simply, President Putin cannot be empowered to wage war or engage in aggression against Ukraine or anyone else," Secretary of State Antony Blinken said hours later in Jerusalem.

"As you know, and as you have heard us say repeatedly, we do not have a strategy of regime change in Russia or anywhere else, for that matter,” he said.

Thomas Schwartz, a historian of U.S. foreign relations at Vanderbilt University, said Biden may have said what he believes, but it was not smart policy to say it aloud.

“When Biden ad libs, there is trouble,” he said. “The administration needs to be more disciplined if it wants to get a negotiated settlement.”

Analysts warned that Biden’s remark could ripple across the NATO alliance as Western leaders try to get Putin to end the war in Ukraine. In a worst-case scenario, the Russian leader could expand the conflict on the grounds that he is protecting his country's interests.

Biden’s comment could cause Putin’s paranoid inner circle to crack down further on dissent in Russia, they said.

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President Joe Biden says Russia's Vladimir Putin "cannot remain in power" in a speech at the Royal Castle on March 26 in Warsaw, Poland. Biden visited with the Polish president and U.S. troops stationed near the Ukrainian border, bolstering NATO's eastern flank.
President Joe Biden says Russia's Vladimir Putin "cannot remain in power" in a speech at the Royal Castle on March 26 in Warsaw, Poland. Biden visited with the Polish president and U.S. troops stationed near the Ukrainian border, bolstering NATO's eastern flank.

In Russia, “this comment will be viewed as direct interference in Russia’s internal affairs and play into Russian propaganda that the United States is a hostile power,” said William Pomeranz, acting director of the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute, a think tank dedicated to Russian and Eurasia research.

Putin’s advisers probably viewed Biden’s statement as the president speaking out loud what they already believed was U.S. policy, said Heather Conley, president of the German Marshall Fund, which promotes cooperation and understanding between North America and Europe.

Biden’s earlier statements that Putin is a war criminal and the State Department’s formal determination Wednesday that Russian troops have committed war crimes hurt any chances of face-to-face conversations with Putin, Conley said.

Biden’s comment that Putin cannot remain in power “makes it almost impossible for the two leaders to speak,” she said.

After meeting Saturday with refugees from Mariupol, a city in southeastern Ukraine that has been relentlessly shelled, Biden called Putin “a butcher.”

This month, when Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., suggested Putin should be assassinated, the White House made clear that regime change is not U.S. policy.

That made Biden's comment Saturday all the more striking.

Some analysts said Biden’s remark is unlikely to change Putin’s calculus on the war in Ukraine.

“Indeed, it will only confirm that he has no path to retreat,” Pomeranz said. “The Russian people will ultimately decide the fate of Vladimir Putin, although obviously, it is unlikely to happen as a result of an election. Nevertheless, it appears that Putin is headed to a major military defeat and catastrophic economic collapse, a combination that is usually fatal even for an autocratic ruler.”

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A crowd attends President Joe Biden's speech about the Russian invasion of Ukraine at the Royal Castle on March 26 in Warsaw, Poland.
A crowd attends President Joe Biden's speech about the Russian invasion of Ukraine at the Royal Castle on March 26 in Warsaw, Poland.

Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, said the White House’s attempt to walk back Biden’s remark is unlikely to placate Russia.

“Putin will see it as confirmation of what he’s believed all along,” Haass wrote on Twitter. He called the comment a “bad lapse in discipline that runs risk of extending the scope and duration of the war.”

“Our interests are to end the war on terms Ukraine can accept & to discourage Russian escalation,” Haass wrote. “Today’s call for regime change is inconsistent with these ends.”

After Biden’s speech, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told The Associated Press that “it’s not up to the president of the U.S. and not up to the Americans to decide who will remain in power in Russia.”

“Only Russians, who vote for their president, can decide that,” Peskov said. “And of course, it is unbecoming for the president of the U.S. to make such statements.”

Tom Nichols, an expert on U.S.-Russian relations at the U.S. Naval War College, called that a ”whatever" response from Moscow.

“Which is about right and about all the whole thing warrants while the goal here is to end a war of Russian aggression,” Nichols tweeted.

President Joe Biden visits with members of the 82nd Airborne Division on March 25 in Jasionka, Poland.
President Joe Biden visits with members of the 82nd Airborne Division on March 25 in Jasionka, Poland.

Garret Martin, an expert on trans-Atlantic relations at American University, said Putin already believed that the United States is out to get him, but Moscow could use Biden's comments to argue to Russians that America’s real goal is not helping Ukraine but undermining the Russian government.

“In the battle for narratives, maybe it helps Putin domestically a little bit,” Martin said.

In his speech, Biden appealed to Russians: “This war is not worthy of you, the Russian people.”

“The American people stand with you and the brave citizens of Ukraine who want peace,” he said.

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Martin said other aspects of Biden’s speech and trip will have longer impacts, particularly the solidarity that Biden helped build among allies.

“While the Putin 'cannot remain in power' line will get the most attention, don't be distracted by it,” David Rothkopf, author of “National Insecurity: American Leadership in an Age of Fear,” wrote on Twitter. “It was the overall thrust of the speech and the degree to which Biden and our allies are backing it up that matters the most in a historical sense.”

The United States and its allies have never been more unified in an approach to an international security crisis in the post-Cold War era, said Timothy Naftali, a presidential historian at New York University. Biden deserves some credit for that, he said.

“Understandably, the president let his emotions get away from him,” Naftali said. “It is hard to imagine any modern state would want to be led much longer by anyone who intentionally bombs and starves out civilians.”

Contributing: The Associated Press

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Biden's comment that Putin can't remain in power prompts concern