For a few minutes, the world changed.
In a speech in Poland on Saturday, United States president Joe Biden appeared to call for the removal of Russian leader Vladimir Putin by any means, saying: “For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power.”
The president’s full-throated verbal assault on Putin seemed to represent a remarkable shift in US policy: regime change in Russia.
But almost as soon as breaking news headlines and push alerts took the momentous soundbite around the world, the White House began walking back his remarks.
“The President’s point was that Putin cannot be allowed to exercise power over his neighbors or the region,” a White House official told The Independent.
“He was not discussing Putin’s power in Russia, or regime change.”
However, the attempted clean-up operation failed to reassure many observers.
“Too late. We all heard Biden say: ‘For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power’,” Washington Post columnist Josh Rogin tweeted.
“The world heard it. No way to unring that bell.”
Author and international affairs expert Tom Nichols said he thought the remark went too far.
Regardless of the intent, it showed the US was no longer interested in “meaningful relations with Russia” while Putin remained in power.
“No POTUS can really meet with Putin again. Goal should be the Cold War goal: Peaceful coexistence and avoiding disaster.”
Not sure I woulda gone there. But pretty clear Biden has now given up on meaningful relations with Russia for the foreseeable future, which was inevitable; no POTUS can really meet with Putin again. Goal should be the Cold War goal: Peaceful coexistence and avoiding disaster. https://t.co/ubyGXeHb8P
— Tom Nichols (@RadioFreeTom) March 26, 2022
now WH official walks back Biden remark:
“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.”
suggests it was a significant lapse in discipline by Biden
— John Harwood (@JohnJHarwood) March 26, 2022
CNN’s John Harwood called it a “significant lapse in discipline” from Mr Biden.
The Washington Post’s Tyler Pager reported Mr Biden’s remarks were not scripted, and had taken his aides by surprise.
Mr Biden’s comments drew a swift response from Russia, as it sent an artillery strike to the western Ukrainian city of Lviv moments after he had finished speaking.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov also responded to the speech, saying: “This is not to be decided by Mr Biden. It should only be a choice of the people of the Russian Federation.”
Earlier in the day, Mr Biden had called Putin a “butcher” for the indiscriminate bombing of civilian targets in Ukraine as he met with refugees near the border with Poland.
He also called Putin a “war criminal” in response to a question from a reporter last week. The White House also walked back those remarks, while the State Department has since declared the Russian president guilty of war crimes.
While some feared the speech raised the prospect of a direct confrontation with Russia, others praised the speech as Mr Biden’s strongest statement since Russia invaded Ukraine in February.
“Just what Ukraine and the world needed at this point in history,” former White House official Mike Walker wrote on Twitter.
Since the late 1970s I have listened to literally hundreds of Joe Biden speeches, most of them in person on the Senate floor.
This was Joe Biden’s best speech ever. Just what Ukraine and the world needed at this point in history.
— Mike Walker (@New_Narrative) March 26, 2022
Very good speech, not just for Poland but for all of us
— Anne Applebaum (@anneapplebaum) March 26, 2022
The Atlantic’s Anne Applebaum called it a “very good speech, not just for Poland but for all of us”.
And former Obama national security adviser Ben Rhodes said the president was referring to “the long term stakes in the fight between democracy and autocracy”.
“Might Putin say otherwise? Of course. But he’s long asserted the US wants regime change in Russia.”
That speech was not about regime change in Russia it was about the long term stakes in the fight between democracy and autocracy. Unless the Biden team formally says it has a regime change policy, I wouldn’t take one line as such a consequential shift.
— Ben Rhodes (@brhodes) March 26, 2022