U.S. President Joe Biden said that Russia’s leader Vladimir Putin “cannot remain in power” in Poland Saturday, remarks a White House official said later were meant to prepare the world’s democracies for extended conflict over Ukraine, not back regime change in Russia.
Biden’s comments on Saturday, including a statement earlier in the day calling Putin a “butcher,” were a sharp escalation of the U.S. approach to Moscow over its invasion of Ukraine.
In a major address delivered at Warsaw’s Royal Castle, Biden evoked Poland’s four decades behind the Iron Curtain in an effort to build a case that the world’s democracies must urgently confront an autocratic Russia as a threat to global security and freedom.
But a remark at the end of the speech raised the spectre of an escalation by Washington, which has avoided direct military involvement in Ukraine, and has specifically said it does not back regime change.
“For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power,” Biden told a crowd in Warsaw after condemning Putin’s month-long war in Ukraine.
A White House official said Biden’s remarks did not represent a shift in Washington’s policy.
“The President’s point was that Putin cannot be allowed to exercise power over his neighbours or the region,” the official said. “He was not discussing Putin’s power in Russia, or regime change.”
Asked about Biden’s comment, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told Reuters: “That’s not for Biden to decide. The president of Russia is elected by Russians.”
Calling the fight against Putin a “new battle for freedom,” Biden said Putin’s desire for “absolute power” was a strategic failure for Russia and a direct challenge to a European peace that has largely prevailed since World War Two.
“The West is now stronger, more united than it has ever been,” Biden said. “This battle will not be won in days or months, either. We need to steel ourselves for the long fight ahead.”
The speech came after three days of meetings in Europe with the G7, European Council and NATO allies, and took place roughly at the same time as rockets rained down on the western Ukrainian city of Lviv, just 60 kilometres (40 miles) from the Polish border.