U.S. President Joe Biden called for the ouster of Vladimir Putin, an unscripted and revealing aside that risks emboldening an already erratic and paranoid Russian leader who ordered the invasion of Ukraine.
Biden took the stage in Warsaw on Saturday evening to deliver one of the most consequential speeches of his presidency, evoking Ronald Reagan among the Cold War foes of Soviet domination and warning the world to steel for a long battle in the fight for Ukraine against Putin.
He closed his address with an eyebrow-raising comment: “For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power.”
The ad-libbed remark represents a rare call by a U.S. president for another leader’s removal. Several White House officials quickly attempted to walk back the comments, yet Biden’s tone redefines the stakes of the conflict -- and potentially fuels Russian propaganda, which has sought to justify Putin’s attack on Ukraine with false claims of a need to respond to NATO aggression.
“A dictator bent on rebuilding an empire will never erase a people’s love for liberty,” Biden said. “Brutality will never grind down their will to be free. Ukraine will never be a victory for Russia, for free people refuse to live in a world of hopelessness and darkness.”
Earlier in his visit to Poland, the biggest recipient of Ukrainian refugees, Biden called Putin “a butcher.” His words will revive a debate back home in the U.S., which has a checkered history of intervening abroad and just emerged bruised from a chaotic exit out of Afghanistan. Republican Senator Lindsey Graham had drawn controversy by calling on Russians to take out Putin.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov replied that Putin’s future isn’t for Biden to decide. “The president of Russia is elected by Russians,” Peskov told Reuters.
Biden’s improvised finale to his speech marks an escalation to what was an otherwise closely choreographed trip designed to showcase unity among NATO and European allies without tipping the geopolitical scales. Putin now joins the ranks of Nicolas Maduro, Bashar al-Assad and Saddam Hussein as pariahs who presidents openly wanted out of office.
What makes the situation more charged is that Putin is at the helm of a nuclear-armed major power in the middle of an invasion. That presents a different calculus, especially given the concerns among U.S. officials of what Putin is capable of when cornered.
It remains unclear to what extent Biden’s comments signaled his true aim.
Biden’s unexpected flourish capped a speech that began with the legacy of Polish-born Pope John Paul II -- who famously said people shouldn’t be afraid in fighting repression -- and built to a critique of Putin.
“There’s simply no justification or provocation for Russia’s choice of war,” he said. “And it’s Putin, it’s Vladimir Putin who’s to blame, period.”
Biden’s trip previously plotted a more conventional strategy of rallying support among allies, announcing new sanctions against Russia, pledging further aid and seeking to cut off Russia’s natural-gas revenue.
He visited U.S. troops stationed in Poland about an hour from the Ukrainian border on Friday. On Saturday, he held talks with two top Ukrainian officials, met Poland’s president and comforted refugees from Ukraine at a Warsaw stadium.
A few hours later, he stepped into the outdoor courtyard of the Royal Castle in Warsaw, where hundreds of dignitaries lined up hours earlier to watch his speech. Some waved Ukrainian or U.S. flags, and some cheered with each line.‘Strategic Failure’
Biden declared Russian’s invasion of Ukraine “a strategic failure” and touted the commitment to Article 5, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s mutual defense clause.
“Don’t even think about moving on one single inch of NATO territory,” Biden said.
Other elements of Biden’s trip still lack detail. A deal with the EU to wean Europe off Russian natural gas will take years to come to fruition, and it isn’t clear where a promised additional 15 billion cubic meters to Europe this year will come from. An administration plan to accept as many as 100,000 people from Ukraine doesn’t have a timeline yet.
Biden also left the continent without wavering on the U.S. rejection of Ukrainian pleas for certain kinds of military aid, including supplying fighter jets or enforcing a no-fly zone to close Ukraine’s skies. The U.S. also is cool to other suggestions, including some type of peacekeeping force.Even so, Biden said his message to Ukraine was firm: “We stand with you, period.”