Lauren Moye, FISM News
The White House has attempted to walk back President Joe Biden’s internationally covered comment that Russian President Vladimir Putin “cannot remain in power.” The attempt, however, is unlikely to placate Russia since the speech itself had other spots the Kremlin would find troubling, including encouraging dissension among the Russian people and using battle language frequently throughout the content of the speech.
On Saturday, Biden culminated a week of international diplomacy and alliance building with a speech in Warsaw, Poland. At the conclusion of the speech, he appeared to go off-script saying, “For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power.”
The comment raised concerns from both political pundits and Russian officials that the U.S. was calling for a regime change.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told the Associated Press the comments were “concerning” and “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.” He added that it was “unbecoming” for the U.S. president to make remarks like that. In further comments the Kremlin called Biden a “weak and sick person” of whom Americans should be ashamed.
The White House promptly tried to walk back the comment by releasing an official statement to news media:
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.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken also engaged in damage control hours later from Jerusalem by insisting Biden’s point was that “Putin cannot be empowered to wage war or engage in aggression against Ukraine or anyone.” He then added, “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.”
However, this narrative doesn’t fit with other sections of Biden’s speech which contained a direct address to the Russian people. In the speech, the president voiced the belief that the common Russian citizen did not condone actions in the war such as the “killing of innocent children” or pummeling “hospitals, schools, and maternity wards” with missiles. He also compared what the Ukrainians are currently experiencing to the Siege of Leningrad that Russians underwent during World War 2.
“This is not who you are … this war is not worthy of you, the Russian people. Putin can and must end this war,” Biden passionately declared.
Even though the White House is trying to downplay Biden’s comment, the speech at large seemed to mark a shift from placating to Putin which Biden has been accused of throughout the conflict. Biden, along with other NATO leaders have been extremely careful with their actions and words since Russia invaded Ukraine in an attempt to support the Ukrainian people without igniting a more widespread conflict.
Biden later referred to the war as a “battle for freedom” just minutes before referring to a need to “fight corruption” from the Kremlin in order “to give the Russian people a fair chance.” Other parts of the speech included phrases like “it’s not enough to speak with rhetorical flourish,” that countries needed to “do the hard work of democracy” and that NATO “must commit to be in this fight for the long haul.”
While the context of all this was an appeal to preserve democracy, Biden also voiced that there would be “costs” and “a price to pay” for the countries who undertook this task. The specifics of these costs were not specified, nor was his commitment to democracies limited to NATO allies.
Even without Biden’s closing remark, the Warsaw address had enough hints of the U.S. taking a more confrontational approach to Russia’s invasion, that Biden’s claims of American soldiers being stationed in preparation to defend NATO territory were overshadowed.
Analysts warn that peace negotiations between NATO, Russia, and Ukraine are liable to be hindered by the gaffe and the speech at large.
Richard Haass, President of the Council of Foreign Affairs, tweeted that “The White House walk back” of the regime change is likely to be seen by Putin as “confirmation of what he’s believed all along.”
The White House walk back of @POTUS regime change call is unlikely to wash. Putin will see it as confirmation of what he’s believed all along. Bad lapse in discipline that runs risk of extending the scope and duration of the war.
— Richard N. Haass (@RichardHaass) March 26, 2022
“When Biden ad-libs, there is trouble,” Vanderbilt University-based historian of U.S. foreign relations Thomas Schwartz said to USA Today. “The administration needs to be more disciplined if it wants to get a negotiated settlement.”
Other NATO members, including the UK and France, distanced themselves from Biden’s comments in public statements. “I wouldn’t use this type of wording because I continue to hold discussions with President Putin,” French President Emmanuel Macron said.