President Joe Biden’s high-stakes speech in Warsaw, Poland, on Saturday was crafted with the intent of throwing the full weight of the United States behind its European allies, while framing the Russian invasion of Ukraine as part of a global “battle between democracy and autocracy.”
And although the forceful denunciation of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war resonated with some leaders, it was an unprompted ad-lib that captured the attention of foreign policy experts, members of Congress and NATO allies.
“For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power,” Biden declared, a comment that two White House officials said was not included in his prepared speech.
Even as top administration officials spent Sunday walking back Biden’s remarks, the statement had already sent ripple effects throughout the world, highlighting just how powerful nine unprompted words from Biden can be, particularly during a foreign policy crisis.
“I wouldn’t use this kind of words,” French President Emmanuel Macron said in a television interview Sunday, when asked to comment on Biden’s speech. He said he hoped to obtain a cease-fire and the withdrawal of Russian troops from Ukraine through diplomacy.
Until Biden’s unscripted moment, the speech had largely achieved its intended goals, lawmakers, allies and foreign policy experts said. But immediately afterward, Biden’s aides worried that his surprising remark might roil some of those allies the president was determined to keep unified.
Taken literally, the remark meant the United States would be reversing a policy of not pushing for regime change. Biden’s staff felt as if it had little choice but to play down the off-the-cuff comment.
“We do not have a strategy of regime change in Russia or anywhere else, for that matter,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in Jerusalem after meeting with Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid. “In this case, as in any case, it’s up to the people of the country in question.”
Michal Baranowski, a senior fellow and director of the Warsaw office of the German Marshall Fund who attended Biden’s speech, acknowledged that Biden’s comment could be perceived as “a call for regime change.” But he said it was unlikely to lead to further escalation with Russia.
But Republican members of Congress worried the Kremlin would seize on the remark.
Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, described Biden’s speech as “very strong, despite the ad-lib at the end.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.By Zolan Kanno-Youngs and Emily Cochrane