WARSAW — They were among the last few words of a carefully crafted speech. But they strayed far from the delicate balance that President Biden had been trying to achieve during three days of war diplomacy in Europe.
“For God’s sake, this man can’t stay in power,” Biden said on Saturday, slowing his cadence to put emphasis.
At first glance, he seemed to be advocating the impeachment of President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia over his brutal invasion of Ukraine. But Biden’s aides were quick to insist that the comment — spoken in front of a castle that served as a home to Polish monarchs for centuries — was not intended as a call for regime change.
Whatever his intent, this moment underlined the twin challenges Biden faced at three extraordinary summits in Belgium and a close-up look at the fallout from Poland: keeping America’s allies united against Putin while simultaneously escalating Russia, which the president has said could lead to World War III.
To achieve his first goal, Mr. Biden spent much of the journey drawing the world’s attention to Mr. Putin’s atrocities since he started the war on February 24. He urged continued action to cripple the Russian economy. He reaffirmed America’s promise to defend its NATO allies against any threat. And he called Mr Putin “a butcher” who is responsible for the devastating damage to the cities and people of Ukraine.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitri S. Peskov said Mr Putin’s fate was not in the hands of the US president. “It’s not up to Biden to decide,” Peskov told reporters after Biden finished speaking. “The President of Russia is elected by the Russians.”
Even as he made it his mission to rally his colleagues, Mr. Biden and his aides were determined to avoid actions that Mr. Putin could use as a pretext to start a broader and even more dangerous conflict.
“There is simply no justification or provocation for Russia’s choice of war,” Biden said earlier in his address Saturday night. “It exemplifies one of the oldest human impulses — using brute force and disinformation to satisfy a desire for absolute power and control.”
During closed-door talks at NATO and with the leaders of more than 30 countries, Biden has repeatedly vowed not to send US troops into the fight against Russia. And despite desperate pleas from Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky, Mr. Biden remained opposed to using NATO or US fighter jets to secure the country’s airspace from Russian attacks.
Mr Biden’s journey, which began Wednesday, came at a pivotal time for his presidency and the world, amid Europe’s worst war since 1945 and a spiraling humanitarian crisis. Both are testing the resolve and cooperation within the NATO alliance after four years in which former President Donald J. Trump questioned its relevance and pushed a policy of America First isolationism.
According to veteran foreign policy observers, for most of his foray abroad, Mr Biden managed to stick to the message — a reality that made his final comment on Mr Putin’s future even more striking.
“That message of unity is exactly what Putin needs to hear to convince him to scale back his war goals and end the brutality,” Charles Kupchan, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “It’s what Ukrainians need to hear to encourage them to continue the fight. And it’s what Europeans need to hear to calm their nerves and reassure them that the United States is fully committed to its defense.”
And yet the president finished his trip on Saturday, returning home with few concrete answers about how or when the war will end — and stark uncertainty about the brutal and harrowing violence to come.
A top Russian commander appeared on Friday to indicate that Moscow was narrowing its war targets and said capturing Ukraine’s capital Kiev and other major cities was not a priority. Colonel General Sergei Rudskoi, the chief of the main operational directorate of the General Staff of the Russian army, said in a public statement that the army would instead focus “on the most important thing: the complete liberation of the Donbas”, the southeastern region. region that is home to a Kremlin-backed separatist insurgency.
Government officials say a Russian withdrawal from Donbas would be a notable failure for Mr Putin, who has sparked international contempt for his invasion and plunged the Russian economy into disarray under the weight of global sanctions.
If Mr Putin decides to limit the scope of the battle, it would pose new diplomatic challenges for Mr Biden, who has used the horrors of all-out war to unite the world against Russian aggression. That could become more difficult if Mr Putin decided to send some of his troops back – be it a real retreat or a strategic feint.
For now, however, large parts of Ukraine remain under siege, as the country’s armed forces have resisted fiercely.
On Saturday, as Biden prepared to deliver his speech, Russian missiles hit Lviv, a city in western Ukraine not far from the Polish border. The missiles hit or near what is believed to be an oil storage facility, and thick black smoke billowed over the city. At least five people were injured.
Mr Putin’s mindset remained murky as Mr Biden boarded Air Force One on Saturday night for the flight back to Washington, complicating his administration’s calculations as it looks for ways to keep pressure on Russia without going too far. to go.
It all adds up to a daunting task for Mr. Biden, who took office determined to end America’s 20-year war in Afghanistan and now faces the challenge of managing the answer to another war.
He has received high marks — even from Republicans — for sending more than $2 billion in military and security aid to Ukraine, making it better able to fend off Russian forces. And he has joined European leaders in imposing crippling sanctions on the Russian economy, putting enormous pressure on the Russian leader’s most ardent backers.
During Mr Biden’s visit to Brussels, NATO announced the redeployment of additional military forces to the member states closest to Russia, an effort Mr Biden said would send a message of determination to Mr Putin.
The president also announced $1 billion in humanitarian aid to Poland and other countries that have taken in 3.5 million people fleeing the fighting in Ukraine. Mr Biden said the United States would open its borders to 100,000 Ukrainian refugees.
War between Russia and Ukraine: important developments
Biden’s journey comes to an end. President Biden offered a message of unity and support to Ukraine during a speech in Warsaw as he completed a three-day trip to Europe. The speech came amid reports that the Ukrainian city of Lviv had been hit by rockets just over the Polish border.
“Visible American leadership is no longer taken for granted in Europe,” said Ian Lesser, executive director in Brussels for the German Marshall Fund. “In that sense, the president’s journey has made a big impression.”
But the president has also been criticized by Mr Zelensky for refusing to enforce a no-fly zone over Ukraine.
“Their advantage in the air is like using weapons of mass destruction,” Mr. Zelensky to Mr. Biden and the leaders of other NATO countries during their closed-door meeting on Thursday. “And you see the consequences today. How many people were killed, how many peaceful cities were destroyed.”
Mr Biden was confronted with the limits of European action when he raised the issue of curtailing Russia’s ability to profit from the sale of its oil and gas to his allies. Europe gets a large percentage of its energy from Russia and Mr Biden again discovered a deep reluctance to make a decision to cut off that lifeline.
Instead, the president announced a longer-term plan to help Europeans refrain from using Russian fuel.
Jeremy Bash, who served as a top adviser to both the Pentagon and the CIA under former President Barack Obama, called Mr Putin’s war a “geopolitical earthquake” and a “just once in a generation contest” that Mr Putin will face. forced. Biden to quickly adapt to a rapidly changing security and diplomatic world.
“President Biden is now a wartime commander in chief fighting four wars at once,” Mr Bash said on Saturday. “An economic war, an information war, probably a cyber war and an unprecedented indirect military war against Putin. And so far Putin has failed to achieve any of his goals.”
Some of the world’s most ardent government supporters of foreign policy were quick to chide the president for appearing to be attempting to impeach Mr Putin. Richard Haass, the chairman of the Council on Foreign Relations, called it “bad discipline that risks extending the size and duration of the war”.
While US officials still insist that their goal is not regime change in Moscow, even the president’s top national security advisers have made it clear that they want Putin to emerge strategically weakened.
“Ultimately, the Russian people will ask the more fundamental question of why this happened and how this happened,” Jake Sullivan, the president’s national security adviser, told reporters on Air Force One before the presidential meeting on Friday. speech. “And we believe they will eventually be able to connect the dots.”
Sullivan added: “These are costs that President Putin inflicted on himself and his country and its economy and its industrial defense base because of his completely unjustified and unprovoked decision to go to war in Ukraine.”