The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Biden says Putin ‘cannot remain in power’ in forceful speech in Poland

Since Russia’s war with Ukraine began, the Biden administration has taken pains to avoid even implying that regime change is a goal of the Western response

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)

WARSAW — President Biden forcefully denounced Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Saturday, casting Moscow’s aggression as “the test of all time” for democracy before ending his sunset speech here by saying that Russian President Vladimir Putin “cannot remain in power.”

“For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power,” Biden said, in an unscripted remark that came at the end of his roughly 30-minute address.

The White House raced to clarify his comment, issuing a statement saying that Biden had not actually meant what he’d said.

“The president’s point was that Putin cannot be allowed to exercise power over his neighbors or the region,” a White House official said in a statement. “He was not discussing Putin’s power in Russia, or regime change.”

Even aside from that remark, Biden’s speech in Warsaw — the capstone of a three-day trip to Europe — marked the most defiant and aggressive speech about Russia by an American president since Ronald Reagan, and came as the war between Russia and Ukraine entered its second month.

Biden sought to use his address at the Royal Castle in Poland’s capital to send a clear and unmistakable message to Putin and the world: “Don’t even think about moving on one single inch of NATO territory.”

Biden and his team specifically chose as his backdrop the Royal Castle, which was destroyed during World War II and rebuilt as a monument to Polish history and culture. The building, a White House official said, represents the resilience and the indomitable spirit of the Polish people and provided a natural setting for Biden to deliver a clarion call about the stakes of democracy.

Biden’s off-the-cuff comment about Putin needing to be removed from power came at the climax of his speech, and Biden himself seemed caught up in the force of his rhetoric — riding the wave of his oration right into a nine-word statement his aides had not intended him to utter.

The remark surprised aides, who knew it was not included in his prepared remarks, said a person familiar with the issue who spoke on the condition of anonymity to share candid details of a sensitive situation. In the minutes after the speech, administration officials — who have long made a point of not calling for regime change in Russia — scrambled to clarify Biden’s comments.

Russia was also quick to weigh in, with Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov telling state news agencies: “That’s not for Biden to decide. The president of Russia is elected by Russians.”

Biden’s tough words toward Putin also took European policymakers by surprise, and sent some scurrying to try to understand whether the White House had just changed its policy in favor of deposing the Russian leader.

“The speech was powerful, the ending interesting,” said a senior European diplomat, speaking on the condition of anonymity to offer a candid reaction to Biden’s rhetoric. “I think Putin will see this exactly as a regime change speech.”

Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-N.J.), who was born in Poland and served as President Bill Clinton’s chief foreign policy speechwriter, said he would not have recommended Biden make such a bold declaration. Yet at the same time, he said he disagreed with the White House’s decision to walk it back.

“Presidents in particular need to be careful not to call for things that we are not prepared to make happen, but at the same, it was undeniably morally true and the implications are inescapable anyway,” he said. “Namely, that no president can have a normal relationship with Putin ever again.”

Biden spent much of his speech denouncing Putin’s behavior and warning that he was “taking Russia back to the 19th century.”

“It is Putin, Vladimir Putin, who is to blame — period,” Biden said.

At times, Biden spoke directly to the Russian public.

“Let me say this, if you’re able to listen: You, the Russian people, are not our enemy,” Biden said.I refuse to believe that you welcome the killing of innocent children and grandparents or that you accept hospitals, schools, maternity wards, for God’s sake, being pummeled with Russian missiles and bombs or cities being surrounded so that civilians cannot flee.”

And he also directly addressed the Ukrainian people, offering a message that he said he had conveyed to Ukraine’s top government ministers earlier in the day: “We stand with you — period.”

In many ways, Biden’s speech — and his entire trip — provides a significant test of one of the organizing principles of his presidency: the belief that the 21st century will be defined by a global battle between democracies and autocracies, and that the United States can help lead the way into a more free and just future.

“In the perennial struggle for democracy and freedom, Ukraine and its people are on the front lines, fighting to save their nation, and their brave resistance is part of a larger fight for essential democratic principles that unite all free people,” Biden told the hundreds gathered, a group that included Poland’s president, members of the Polish Parliament, local officials and local university students.

Outside the castle’s gates, throngs more had lined up in the cold for several hours, eager to hear the American president’s speech, which was also broadcast on a large screen in Warsaw’s Old Town.

Biden traveled to Europe — first to Brussels for meetings with NATO and other allies, then to Poland — as part of an effort to shore up the Western alliance and keep it unified against Moscow.

But as concerns grow about the war dragging on and Putin potentially escalating his aggression against Ukraine with biological or nuclear weapons, Biden’s visit demonstrated both the peril and the promise of trying to manage a war against an unpredictable geopolitical foe like Putin.

“This is very uncomfortable conversation for Western allies,” said Ian Lesser, vice president of the German Marshall Fund, which works to strengthen transatlantic ties. “They assumed a more or less rational actor and they didn’t price in the kind of ruthlessness that we’re seeing from President Putin, and this of course upsets the traditional calculus in ways NATO has not fully thought out.”

The success of the Ukrainian military in fending off Russia thus far has surprised Western and Russian officials; both groups had originally expected Moscow to easily take control of its western neighbor. But Ukraine still remains outgunned by a much more powerful Russian military. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has repeatedly appealed to the West for more military assistance, including some requests — such as a no-fly zone over Ukraine — that the Biden administration and NATO are not prepared to grant.

In recent days, the Kremlin has publicly focused on controlling the Donbas region in the eastern part of Ukraine — prompting some speculation that Putin may be preparing to cut his losses. But on Saturday, officials in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv reported powerful explosions, a sign the war is showing no signs of abating.

Biden’s trip — and his handling of the crisis in Ukraine — offered an opportunity to highlight one of the key successes of his presidency. European leaders this past week praised the U.S. president, lauding his leadership and close collaboration with allies as they punished Moscow and assisted Ukrainians. After then-President Donald Trump spent years denigrating NATO and threatening to pull out of the alliance, Biden has spent a considerable part of his presidency reassuring the world that “America is back.”

Biden and his team said they made the transatlantic visit, which came together at the last minute, in part to fortify the Western alliance against Moscow and ensure further cooperation if Russia’s aggression continues for months.

“Part of the reason that he decided that we needed to do this is because — the early weeks — unity can be carried forward by momentum and inertia and adrenaline, but this could go on for quite some time,” Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security adviser, told reporters aboard Air Force One en route to Poland. “And to sustain that unity as costs rise, as the tragedy unfolds, that’s hard work. And the president wanted to get everyone together to say, ‘We’ve got to do that work.’”

But Biden’s impromptu remark about removing Putin from power threatened to overshadow a speech that Biden and his team had labored over and hoped would serve as the apex of his largely successful — and highly choreographed — trip.

In addition to the ad-libbed remark, the rhetoric from Biden aimed at Moscow was striking compared with that of his immediate predecessors, including his former boss, Barack Obama, who was caught on a microphone telling then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in 2012 that “after my election I have more flexibility.” After a summit with Putin in 2001, George W. Bush declared the Russian leader “very straightforward and trustworthy — I was able to get a sense of his soul.”

When Donald Trump ran for president in 2016, Russia actively interfered in the election to help Trump defeat his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton, according to the collective conclusion of U.S. intelligence agencies. Once in office, Trump frequently praised Putin and, during a Helsinki summit in 2018, said he believed Putin’s “extremely strong and powerful” denial of election interference. And in late February, Trump in a radio interview called Putin’s invasion of Ukraine “genius” and “savvy.”

Instead, the tough language from Biden on Saturday — which also included calling Putin a “dictator” and a “butcher” — brought to mind Reagan, who famously labeled the Soviet Union an “evil empire.” Referring to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev during a pivotal speech in divided Berlin in 1987, Reagan declared, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”

Biden’s flurry of diplomatic activity in Brussels included an announcement of a new package of economic sanctions, a Group of Seven statement sternly warning Putin against using nuclear weapons in Ukraine, and a new joint task force between the U.S. and the European Commission to reduce Europe’s reliance on Russia’s fossil fuels.

Sullivan said Biden had prepared, in part, by participating in “speed dating” with subject matter experts on “every topic under the sun.”

“He’s probably taken every meal he’s eaten so far here over a briefing,” Sullivan told reporters Friday. “Right? Like, he’s not sitting alone eating; he’s eating while someone is going through some element of this trip with him.”

And despite Biden’s gaffe in his very last moments on Polish soil, White House officials privately said they hoped the message of Biden’s three days abroad, and his speech Saturday night, would break through, ensuring the West stays united against Russia in what will probably be a long slog.

“In this battle, we need to be clear-eyed,” Biden told the crowd Saturday night. “This battle will not be won in days or months either. We need to steel ourselves for the long fight ahead.”

Michael Birnbaum in Washington contributed to this report.

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