President Joe Biden appeared on Saturday to urge the ouster of Russian President Vladimir Putin, in a seemingly unscripted remark that differs with official US policy. His comments drew a quick White House walk back.
“For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power,” the president said during a speech in Warsaw, Poland, that capped the president’s four-day trip to Europe.
The Biden administration has avoided advocating regime change in Russia. After Biden’s speech, the White House denied Biden had contradicted that stance. “The president’s point was that Putin cannot be allowed to exercise power over his neighbors or the region,” a White House official told reporters. “He was not discussing Putin’s power in Russia, or regime change.”
Biden’s remark came at the end of a speech in which he cast Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as an extension of the Soviet Union’s Cold War aggression, including the Soviet invasions of Hungary, Poland, and Czechoslovakia. While those states eventually won freedom, “the battle for democracy did not conclude with the end of the Cold War,” Biden said, arguing that “Russia has strangled democracy and sought to do so elsewhere,” he said.
Biden also attacked Putin personally, calling him “a butcher” earlier on Saturday. Biden previously called Putin “a war criminal,” drawing a complaint from Russia, which summoned the US ambassador, a traditional means of registering diplomatic objections.
The White House has generally won high marks for avoiding policies or rhetorical excesses that could increase the risk of US conflict with Russia. But Biden’s comment Saturday marked the second time on a four-day trip to Europe that the president has appeared, intentionally or not, to exercise less restraint in his remarks. On Friday, speaking to US troops stationed in Poland, Biden told them: “You’re going to see when you’re there—some of you have been there—you’re going to see women, young people, standing in the middle, in front of a damn tank, saying, ‘I’m not leaving.’” That seemingly errant line implied US troops might be deployed to Ukraine.
“The president has been clear we are not sending US troops to Ukraine and there is no change in that position,” a White House spokesperson told Fox News later Friday.