WASHINGTON — President Biden insisted on Monday that Vladimir V. Putin should not be allowed to remain Russia’s president, but said it was an expression of his own disgust at the invasion of Ukraine and not a change in US policy to remove it. of Mr Putin from office.
“I expressed the moral outrage I feel, and I make no apologies for it,” Mr Biden told reporters at the White House, dismissing criticism from around the world over the past two days about the possible diplomatic fallout from his words. The president said no one should have interpreted his comments as calling for Mr Putin’s impeachment.
“It’s ridiculous,” he said of questions about his speech in Warsaw on Saturday, when he said: “For God’s sake, this man can’t stay in power.” On Monday, Mr Biden said: “No one believes I was talking about taking down Putin. Nobody believes that.”
The fallout from Mr Biden’s words in Warsaw underscored the dilemma he and NATO allies face about how to condemn the war in Ukraine and pressure Russia without ending any relationship with Moscow that could help end to do with the invasion.
The West will also have to decide whether to let Moscow back into the global economy, whether to lift sanctions and how to resume diplomatic relations if Russia withdraws its troops.
Mr Biden’s comment has garnered some praise for its toughness and clarity, as well as warnings from lawmakers and France’s President Emmanuel Macron, who said on Sunday that “I wouldn’t use words like that” when asked about Mr. Biden. Macron said he hoped through diplomacy to secure a ceasefire and the withdrawal of Russian troops from Ukraine.
Some critics said Mr Biden’s statement could make it more difficult to negotiate an end to the 5-week-old war that has killed thousands in Ukraine and forced millions from their homes.
Mr Biden insisted Monday that was not the case, although Mr Putin has been telling Russians for years that he believes the United States and the CIA are plotting to remove him from power. Kremlin spokesman Dmitri S. Peskov said Mr Biden’s statement “is of concern” and that the Kremlin would “continue to monitor closely” the president’s comments.
In his speech in Warsaw, Biden tried to distinguish between Mr Putin’s actions and those of the Russian people, who he said were not responsible for the atrocities the country’s military commits every day in Ukraine. He suggested that Russian controls on television and the Internet had made the country’s citizens ignorant of the truth.
“Vladimir Putin’s aggression has cut you, the Russian people, off from the rest of the world, and it is bringing Russia back to the 19th century,” he said.
Moments later, he proclaimed that “a dictator determined to rebuild an empire will never erase a people’s love of freedom” before declaring that Mr Putin should leave.
The White House seemed quick to understand that Mr Biden’s words could be seen as a reversal of the administration’s long-held position that it was not pursuing regime change in Russia. It took just minutes for officials to back down from Mr Biden’s comments on Saturday night. Reporters had just loaded buses after his speech when government officials sent an email denying that the president was formally calling for Mr Putin’s removal.
On Sunday, Foreign Minister Antony J. Blinken told journalists in Jerusalem that “by the way, we have no strategy for regime change in Russia or anywhere.”
On Monday, his first comprehensive comments on the matter, Mr Biden insisted his statement had been misinterpreted.
“The last thing I want to do is start a land war or a nuclear war with Russia. That’s not part of it,” Mr Biden said. “I expressed my outrage at the behavior of this man. It’s outrageous. It’s outrageous. It’s more of an aspiration than anything. He shouldn’t be in power.”
“People like this shouldn’t rule countries, but they do,” he said, “but that doesn’t mean I can’t express my outrage.”
Mr Biden spoke as violence continued to mount in Ukraine, with Russian troops appearing determined to bolster their territorial gains in the east. In just five weeks, the conflict has claimed the lives of thousands of civilians, including women and children who were victims of intense Russian bombing. Human rights advocates say more than 3.7 million Ukrainians have fled, sparking one of the worst ever refugee crises in Eastern Europe.
The president’s comment on Saturday wasn’t the first time a seemingly ill-considered comment turned upside down or overshadowed an otherwise tightly-written White House message.
At a press conference earlier in the trip, Mr. Biden said Russia’s use of chemical weapons would “provoke a response in kind”, and he seemed to suggest that NATO react with chemical weapons, which are banned under international law. Jake Sullivan, the president’s national security adviser, told reporters the next day that was not what the president intended, saying that “the United States does not intend to use chemical weapons under any circumstances.”
In January, Biden sparked a similar wave of speculation when he said the response to a then-potential invasion of Ukraine would depend on whether it was “a minor incursion”. Mr Biden eventually corrected himself by saying, “If there are assembled Russian units crossing the Ukrainian border, that’s an invasion.”
Biden is no stranger to the nuances of public diplomacy, in which officials — especially heads of state — are careful to speak in very specific ways in an attempt to insult another leader or send an unintended message about policy.
For example, US presidents never call Taiwan an independent nation for fear of provoking anger at the Chinese government. Similar caution is exercised when speaking of the city of Jerusalem, whose status remains a contentious part of discussions between Israel and the Palestinians.
In 2016, when President Barack Obama delivered a eulogy at the funeral of Shimon Peres, the former Israeli president, a White House stenographer initially indicated that the comments were made in “Jerusalem, Israel.” After a small flap was made, the comments were changed to remove the reference to Israel.
War between Russia and Ukraine: important developments
President Donald J. Trump has repeatedly violated many of the diplomatic rules in what aides say was a deliberate attempt to shake up the way foreign policy was conducted. He called the leader of North Korea “Rocket Man”, formally recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and took steps in the final days of his administration to deal more formally with Taiwan.
Since taking office, Mr. Biden has made it a priority to return to a more traditional form of diplomacy in which the United States seeks to cooperate with adversaries such as Russia, even as the government challenges Mr. Putin’s actions it finds objectionable. .
But the Russian invasion of Ukraine has put that approach to the test. In recent weeks, Biden has become increasingly vocal in his condemnation of Mr Putin, using more aggressive language as the Russian leader has escalated his attacks on Ukraine.
A week ago, he called Mr Putin “a war criminal” before the United States had officially identified it. Before his speech on Saturday, Mr Biden visited refugees from Ukraine at a stadium in Warsaw and called Mr Putin “a butcher” over the deaths caused by shelling in Mariupol, a hard-hit city in the eastern part of the country.
That kind of language has helped Mr. Biden unite US allies behind a coordinated series of responses to Mr. Putin’s aggression, including some of the toughest sanctions ever imposed on a large, developed country. The president’s condemnations have been echoed by other world leaders in recent weeks.
But it remains a delicate balance as the administration does not try to provoke Putin into a broader conflict with NATO countries. Mr Biden has repeatedly said that such agreements could lead to World War III.
In his comments to reporters on Monday, the president said his visit to the refugees just hours earlier led to his comment that Mr Putin will not remain in power.
“Half of the children in Ukraine,” he said, apparently referring to the number of children estimated to have become refugees because of the war. “I just came from being with those families.”