Biden's Russian regime change ‘gaffe’ worries allies despite back-pedalling

The US president said his Russian counterpart 'cannot remain power', only for the White House to insist that was not a call for regime change

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President Joe Biden’s apparent call for his Russian counterpart to be removed from power has created a stir in US policy circles and alarm among its allies, although the White House downplayed the remarks.

At the end of his speech from Warsaw on Saturday, Mr Biden said of Russian President Vladimir Putin: “For God's sake, this man cannot remain power.”

The remark caused concern within the US political establishment and America’s Nato allies as they try to contain the war in Ukraine and present a united front.

The White House clarified within moments that Mr Biden was not in fact advocating change, and the president replied “no” to reporters who asked if that was what he meant.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken also spoke to reporters to clarify the president’s point.

“I think the president, the White House, made the point last night that, quite simply, President Putin cannot be empowered to wage war or engage in aggression against Ukraine or anyone else,” Mr Blinken said.

“As you know, and as you’ve heard us say repeatedly, we do not have a strategy of regime change in Russia, or anywhere else for that matter.”

But, the clarifications did not entirely assuage allies' fears and drew a response from Moscow.

“That's not for Biden to decide,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told Reuters. “The president of Russia is elected by Russians.”

“This speech – and the passages which concern Russia – is astounding, to use polite words,” Mr Peskov said. “He doesn't understand that the world is not limited to the United States and most of Europe.”

France’s President Emmanuel Macron said such language could “escalate” a conflict the US and its Nato allies have sought at all costs to contain, and undercut Western efforts to help Ukrainians.

“I wouldn’t use those terms, because I continue to speak to President Putin, because what do we want to do collectively?” he said. “We want to stop the war that Russia launched in Ukraine, without waging war and without escalation.”

In Berlin, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said on Sunday that neither Nato nor Mr Biden sought regime change in Russia.

During an appearance on ARD television, Mr Scholz also tried to clarify the US position.

“We both agree completely that regime change is not an object and aim of policy that we pursue together,” the chancellor said.

The UK too distanced itself from Mr Biden's remarks, saying that the decision over who leads Russia is “up to the Russian people".

Mr Biden has enjoyed rare bipartisan support in Washington for his handling of the Ukraine crisis so far, but some Republicans chided him for his comments.

Senior Republican Senator Jim Risch said the president had given “a good speech” other than the “horrendous gaffe right at the end of it".

“There's not a whole lot more you can do to escalate than to call for regime change,” he told CNN.

“My gosh, I wish they would keep him on script.”

Senator Rob Portman told NBC that Mr Biden’s comment “plays into the hands of the Russian propagandists and plays into the hands of Vladimir Putin”.

Michael McFaul, a former US ambassador to Russia, said on Twitter that Mr Biden's words needed to be read with nuance.

“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. There is a difference.”

There has been generally favourable coverage of the president’s Europe visit, which included meeting US soldiers on the borders of Ukraine as well as refugees crossing the border into Poland.

However, it is not the first gaffe from the American leader.

During a news conference in Brussels on Thursday, he said the US would respond “in kind” if Mr Putin used chemical weapons in Ukraine.

The next day, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said the president meant that “we’ll respond accordingly”, not that the US would use chemical weapons of its own.

And then, while speaking to members of the 82nd Airborne Division recently sent to Poland, Mr Biden seemed to suggest they would be going to Ukraine.

Speaking about the bravery of Ukrainians, Mr Biden said: “Look at how they’re stepping up. And you’re going to see when you’re there.”

Reporting by agencies

Updated: March 28, 2022, 8:12 AM
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