President Joe Biden‘s call for Vladimir Putin to be removed from power is setting off alarm bells among US foreign policy experts, who fear that it could escalate tensions even after the Kremlin scales back its war aims in Ukraine.
‘For God’s sake this man cannot remain in power,’ Biden said in a shocking apparent call for regime change in Moscow at the end of a impassioned speech from Poland on Saturday.
The unscripted remark, which the White House scrambled to walk back as the Kremlin expressed fury, came at the end of an otherwise resolute and fiery speech rallying the free world to unite in opposition to autocracy and support of Ukraine.
Richard Haass, the Council on Foreign Relations president, tweeted his concerns that Biden had ‘just expanded US war aims, calling for regime change.’
‘However desirable it may be, it is not within our power to accomplish-plus runs risk it will increase Putin’s inclination to see this as a fight to the finish, raising odds he will reject compromise, escalate, or both,’ wrote Haass.
‘Our interests are to end the war on terms Ukraine can accept & to discourage Russian escalation. Today’s call for regime change is inconsistent with these ends,’ he added.
Haass went on to tell Politico that a senior Biden official, possibly even Secretary of State Antony Blinken, needs to reach out to their Russian counterpart immediately and explain that Biden’s comment doesn’t reflect US policy.
‘The fact that it was so off-script in some ways makes it worse,’ because it could be read as Biden’s genuine belief as opposed to his scripted words, Haas said.
Biden’s remark could also diminish Putin’s interest in compromise and increase his temptation to escalate in Ukraine, ‘because if he believes he has everything to lose then he’ll believe he has nothing to lose,’ Haass said.
Before Biden could even board Air Force One to begin the flight back to Washington, his aides were rushing to claim that he hadn’t been calling for an immediate change in government in Moscow.
‘The President’s point was that Putin cannot be allowed to exercise power over his neighbors or the region. He was not discussing Putin’s power in Russia, or regime change,’ a White House official said.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov quickly denounced Biden, saying ‘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.’
Biden’s alarming off-the-cuff remark comes just 24 hours after the White House rushed to clarify other awkward remarks from the president suggesting that US troops would deploy, and had already deployed, to Ukraine.
In a speech to US paratroopers in Poland on Friday, Biden said: ‘You’re going to see when you’re there – some of you have been there – you’re going to see women, young people, standing in the middle, in front of a damn tank, saying, ‘I’m not leaving’.’
Biden’s mention of ‘when you’re there’ seem to suggest that the troops would be deployed across the border to Ukraine, but the administration insisted there has been no change in his stance that the US will not enter the conflict.
The president has been clear we are not sending U.S. troops to Ukraine and there is no change in that position,’ a White House spokesperson clarified to Fox News on Friday.
Biden has persistently said that troops would not be sent into Ukraine under any circumstances during Putin’s invasion, fearing it would turn into World War Three and end up becoming a lengthy combat mission like in Afghanistan.
In his fiery speech on Saturday, Biden drew a stark line between democracy and oppression, repeatedly going after Putin and accusing the Russian president of dishonesty.
Speaking outdoors in the cobbled courtyard of the Royal Castle in Warsaw, which was lit with the colors of Poland and Ukraine, Biden accused Putin of ‘using brute force and disinformation’ to rule.
‘It’s nothing less than a direct challenges to the rules-based system of international order,’ Biden said.
Biden also took a cue from Arnold Schwarzenegger – who released a video message to Russians that went viral – and spoke directly to the Russian people.
‘I’m telling you the truth. This war is not worthy of you the Russian people,’ he said. ‘Putin can and must end this war. The American people will stand with you and the brave citizens of Ukraine that want peace.’
And he warned Putin’s aggression could bring ‘decades of war’ to Europe.
‘It’s nothing less than a direct challenge for the order established since the World War II and it threatens to return to decades of war that ravage Europe before the international rule-based order was put in place. We cannot go back to that,’ Biden said.
Biden also moved to calm worried Eastern European nations. He made it clear the NATO alliance would hold together and he warned Russia not to think about expanding his invasion outside of Ukraine.
Poland and the old Eastern bloc nations – like Lativa and Estonia – are worried Putin’s ambitions might lead to their borders. But Biden made it clear NATO would protect its member nations and honor Article Five, which states if one is striked, all respond.
‘Don’t even think about moving on one single inch of NATO territory. We have sacred obligations,’ Biden said.
Biden mentioned his own conversations with Putin before Russia’s invasion late last month.
He said Putin ‘repeatedly he asserted he had no interest in war – guaranteed he would not move.’
‘There is simply no justification or provocation for Russia’s choice of war.
But Putin and Russia met each of the proposals with disinterest. ‘Russia was bent on violence from the start,’ he said.
After days of diplomacy and quiet meetings with powerbrokers in Warsaw and Brussels, the White House lined up a speech where Biden could speak in broad strokes about what was at stake, as the U.S. and allies rush to arm Ukraine.
Biden said the war has been ‘a strategic failure for Russia already’ – alluding to its battlefield losses.