President Joe Biden’s suggestion in Poland on Saturday that Vladimir Putin’s onslaught on Ukraine should disqualify him from power triggered an international political storm.
Back in Washington Sunday evening, Biden told reporters that he was not calling for regime change in Russia — echoing a message spelled out multiple times by his subordinates even before he had returned to the US.
But the global reverberations from the remarks leave the administration facing grave questions. Some are strategic and could impact the future course of the war and so-far elusive hopes for a ceasefire. Others are political and relate to Biden’s standing at home, amid a torrent of Republican criticism, and internationally, as he seeks to keep the Western coalition together.
- Did the President’s comment dangerously escalate already high tensions in the worst confrontation between the West and Russia in decades?
- Has Biden shaken international confidence in his so-far strong leadership in bringing the NATO alliance together in a united front against Moscow? And will Putin be able to exploit disquiet over Biden’s comments in European capitals?
- Will the notion that Biden hopes to topple Putin — even if the US says it’s not true — harden the embattled Russian leader’s resolve against negotiations or cause him to further escalate an already merciless war against civilians?
- Has Biden’s now stinging rhetoric about Putin effectively ruled out any future direct diplomacy or meetings between the world’s top nuclear powers — and could it endanger global peace if they can’t communicate in a future crisis that threatens humanity?
- Or will Biden’s human reaction to spending time with Ukrainian refugees soon be overtaken by the daily unfolding horror of the war or come to be seen as a strong moral stand that changed the way the world views the Russian leader? After all, ex-President Ronald Reagan’s call for then-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall” in Berlin was initially opposed by some of his own aides as too provocative.
- And finally, since Moscow already sees extraordinarily tough Western sanctions as economic warfare and given Putin’s deeply conspiratorial view of the West and its role in vanquishing the Soviet Union, can a few loose presidential words that rile up everyone in Washington really make things any worse?
A quick clean-up effort
It was clear from the speed with which administration officials worked to clarify Biden’s remark that they knew it could be a big problem that could potentially make an already fraught European geopolitical showdown much worse.
In a jab not in his scripted remarks, Biden said, “For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power” in a reference to Putin. A White House official said Biden meant that “Putin cannot be allowed to exercise power over his neighbors or the region” and said Biden wasn’t referring to regime change. Secretary of State Antony Blinken was even more categorical during a trip to Jerusalem on Sunday.
“We do not have a strategy of regime change in Russia, or anywhere else for that matter,” Blinken said. “In this case, as it is in any case, it’s up to the people of the country in question. It is up to the Russian people.”
The clean-up language was hardly convincing given the clear context of the original quote. But a remark with such implications in a time of high tensions clearly needed walking back. And quickly.
Any idea that the US saw the conflict as an attempt to unseat Putin would be dangerous since it would elevate the clash to a direct confrontation between the United States and Russia.
Biden has scrupulously tried to avoid that scenario — notably blocking a Polish plan to send Soviet-made fighter jets to Ukraine to avoid the impression that NATO is taking a more direct role in the war. The situation is already on a knife-edge since huge Western shipments of anti-aircraft and anti-tank missiles are fueling Ukraine’s strong resistance and apparently causing heavy Russian casualties.
A propaganda present for Putin
There’s no doubt that Biden handed Putin a propaganda gift that could undermine the US President’s own hard work in keeping the focus on Ukraine. Moscow’s information complex is certain to present the war to the Russian people as a hostile push by the West in order to further obscure the truth about the unprovoked attack on Ukraine. This could ease the political pressure the West hopes will be built by harsh sanctions designed to change Putin’s calculation.
But Biden’s initial efforts to avoid personalizing the conflict with Putin and characterizing the war as a direct US-Russia showdown have been undermined by his own hardening rhetoric toward the Russian leader in recent days. He made it known earlier this month that he believes that Putin is a war criminal after relentless attacks on Ukrainian cities and civilians that triggered a massive refugee exodus.
Biden’s comment about the Russian leader’s tenure on power was not the only striking rhetoric of his tour. After meeting refugees on Saturday, Biden called Putin a “butcher.” Previously, Biden had called him a “thug” and a “murderous dictator.” And the script from which he departed to make the now notorious remark was in itself hawkish, previewing what Biden said was a long struggle, which sounded a lot like a new Cold War.
Given that Biden is likely feeling the burden of world peace on his shoulders and acute empathy for those visited by unspeakable tragedy in Ukraine, his outbursts on his European trip may be understandable as a human reaction to great suffering.
“He went to the National Stadium in Warsaw and literally met with hundreds of Ukrainians,” US ambassador to NATO Julianne Smith told CNN’s Dana Bash on “State of the Union” on Sunday.
“In the moment, I think that was a principled human reaction to the stories that he had heard that day,” Smith said, underscoring again that the US didn’t have a policy of regime change in Russia.
But a President’s words must also be carefully chosen. As Saturday’s drama showed, it takes just a moment to cause a dangerous diplomatic crisis.
Republicans plead with Biden to keep to the script
Biden was largely successful in reversing his propensity for gaffes during his 2020 election bid, during a campaign robbed of spontaneous moments by the Covid-19 pandemic. It was unfortunate that his old habits of speaking his mind at inopportune moments resurfaced now.
Republicans seized on the President’s frank comments on Sunday, seeking to dent an impression that Biden has responded well to Putin’s provocations so far in the Ukraine crisis. Clearly, they didn’t just have national security in mind but also politics ahead of the midterm elections, which are being shaped by the President’s diminished approval ratings. And in some of the criticism there was a sense Republicans were playing into the conservative media trope that Biden is old, is not in full control and could blunder the US into a war. Such a position conveniently forgets the tolerance of right-wing opinion hosts towards ex-President Donald Trump’s volcanic rhetoric, but it has power in the GOP grassroots.
Speaking on CNN’s “State of the Union,” Idaho Sen Jim Risch, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations committee, appeared both to be underlining the administration’s message about being opposed to regime change in Moscow while also finding a way to hammer Biden’s capacity to lead.
While praising Biden’s speech in Poland, the Idaho Republican said, “There was a horrendous gaffe right at the end of it. I just wish he would stay on script.”
“This administration has done everything they can to stop escalating,” Risch said. But he added: “There’s not a whole lot more you can do to escalate than to call for regime change.”
Ohio Republican Sen. Rob Portman was slightly more temperate but no less critical.
“First, I think all of us believe the world would be a better place without Vladimir Putin. But second, that’s not the official US policy. And by saying that, that regime change is our strategy, effectively, it plays into the hands of the Russian propagandists and plays into the hands of Vladimir Putin,” Portman said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
Biden’s comments sent shockwaves through Europe as well as Washington. And they appeared to irritate French President Emmanuel Macron, who has been a key figure in trying, with little success, to get Putin to agree to a ceasefire.
“I wouldn’t use terms like that because I’m still in talks with President Putin,” Macron told the France 3 television channel, when asked about Biden’s comment that the Russian leader was a “butcher.”
Any future ceasefire deal Putin agrees to is unlikely to emerge from US diplomacy given the deep and mutual hostility between Moscow and Washington.
But any final agreement — and indeed the long-term goal of preventing dangerous escalations between the world’s top two nuclear powers — depends on them talking to one another. It was already hard to see how Biden could meet a Russian leader whom he has branded a war criminal. This weekend’s events made that even more difficult. And while the US goal in Moscow is not regime change, it’s hard to see any meaningful dialogue while Putin is still in charge.