The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Putin shouldn’t remain in power. Biden’s advisers blew it.

President Biden met with Polish President Andrzej Duda and Ukrainian refugees before his speech outside the Royal Castle in Warsaw on March 26. (Video: Joy Yi, Alexa Juliana Ard/The Washington Post)
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No civilized person thinks it’s a good thing that Russian President Vladimir Putin — widely and correctly regarded as a war criminal and the architect of a unjustifiable war of aggression — leads a nuclear-armed country. President Biden went off script during his address in Warsaw on Saturday to say so. “For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power,” Biden exclaimed.

“On Putin, Biden expressed what billions around the world and millions inside Russia also believe. He did not say that the US should remove him from power,” tweeted Michael McFaul, a former U.S. ambassador to Russia (and contributing columnist to The Post). “There is a difference.” Precisely. Biden was not calling for assassination, invasion or foreign-directed regime change.

Nevertheless, a panicked White House rushed forth to assure the world what Biden really meant: “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.”

There are several things wrong with this.

First, the panicked reaction only drew further attention to the remark — and then made Biden appear weak, confused or rash. At a time when Biden was impressing European allies with his moral strength and diplomatic savvy, his own advisers marred an otherwise successful trip. The explanation they chose — disavowing desire for new leadership in Russia — was the most aggressive and extreme way to contradict the president.

Indeed, there was a much better way to explain the remark, one consistent with Biden’s intent. Just as Ronald Reagan once described the ideal outcome of the Cold War (“We win. They lose.”), Biden’s comment was obviously aspirational. “For God’s sake” — meaning in a decent and sane world — a man such as Putin should not be leading a major power, let alone a nuclear power. That is a perfectly acceptable, morally sound view.

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Some historical context is helpful. During the Cold War, American presidents repeatedly called out to repressed people, expressing their hopes for a free, democratic society. In his 1963 speech in Berlin, President John F. Kennedy declared that “we can look forward to that day when this city will be joined as one and this country and this great Continent of Europe in a peaceful and hopeful globe.” He wasn’t calling for regime change in the Soviet Union; he was appealing to a future free of communist repression.

When Reagan declared in 1982 that “the march of freedom and democracy” will leave Marxism and Leninism “on the ash-heap of history,” he was not calling on the West to oust Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Reagan was making a moral statement, giving voice to the universal aspiration for freedom. (Interestingly, arguably the most famous line of Reagan’s presidency, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” almost never made it into that 1987 speech at the Brandenburg Gate, according to speechwriter Peter Robinson, who later told the story of tremulous advisers saying it sounded too confrontational. Fortunately, Reagan overruled them.)

Well, critics (and quivering aides) might say, Sure, but Biden called out the current leader by name, not just an ideology. Listen, Putin’s ideology is kleptocracy or perhaps thugocracy. Would it have been better if Biden had said, “For God’s sake, a thugocracy built on the cult of personality that invades its neighbors cannot endure?” Biden’s phrasing had the benefit of clarity.

While Biden’s staff plainly overreacted and undercut him, ultimately it is Biden’s call what to say and how to say it. Like Reagan, he should have told his advisers to cool it — or at least explain: No great nation should be ruled by a war criminal. Yes, one day we hope the Russian people will throw off the yoke of oppression. The world would be a better place if they did. Who could argue with that?