UK distances itself from Joe Biden plea that Vladimir Putin ‘cannot remain in power’

Nadhim Zahawi says decision on whether to overthrow Putin is 'up to the Russian people'

UK Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi. PA
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The UK government has distanced itself from US President Joe Biden’s apparent call for regime change in Moscow when he said that Russian leader Vladimir Putin “cannot remain in power”.

Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi said any decision to overthrow Mr Putin for his invasion of Ukraine would be “up to the Russian people” after Mr Biden’s apparently unscripted call caused the White House to quickly pull back from the remark.

In a highly charged speech in Warsaw, Mr Biden appealed to Russian people directly with comparisons between the invasion of Ukraine and the horrors of the Second World War.

“For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power,” he said at the close of his speech about the Russian president, who he earlier described as a “butcher”.

As rockets struck the city of Lviv near the Polish border in the west of Ukraine, Mr Biden said: “If you’re able to listen – you, the Russian people, are not our enemy.”

But a White House official swiftly tried to clarify, saying the US president’s point was that the Russian leader “cannot be allowed to exercise power over his neighbours or the region”.

US secretary of state Antony Blinken insisted “we do not have a strategy of regime change” as the Kremlin said it was “not up to the Americans to decide who will remain in power in Russia”.

French President Emanuel Macron said “he wouldn’t use those terms” voiced by Mr Biden and suggested they could make it harder to resolve the conflict.

"We want to stop the war that Russia launched in Ukraine, without waging war and without escalation,” Mr Macron said.

Richard Haass, a veteran US diplomat who is president of the Council on Foreign Relations think tank, said Mr Biden’s remarks made “a dangerous situation more dangerous” when the strategy should be focused on de-escalation.

Mr Zahawi said it was “for the Russian people to decide how they are governed” but suggested they “would certainly do well” to have someone who “is democratic and understands their wishes”.

“That’s up to the Russian people and it is only the Russian people that can make that decision,,” he told the BBC on Sunday morning.

"I suspect most of them are pretty fed up with Putin and his cronies and the illegal war."

But Mr Zahawi declined to criticise Mr Biden, unlike Tobias Ellwood, the Conservative MP who chairs the House of Commons defence committee, who said Mr Putin would now “spin this, dig in and fight harder”.

Asked if Mr Biden was wrong to issue the call, Mr Zahawi told Sky News: “No, what I’m saying to you is the White House has been very clear on this.

"The president gave a very powerful speech on this and I think both the United States and the United Kingdom agree that it’s up to the Russian people to decide who should be governing them.”

He backed UK Foreign Secretary Liz Truss in saying sanctions against oligarchs, banks and businesses could be lifted if Mr Putin ended the war and committed to “no further aggression”.

With the Kremlin’s troops struggling, Ms Truss's comments will be seen as a possible incentive for Mr Putin to cut his losses and broker a deal with Ukraine.

“Those sanctions should only come off with a full ceasefire and withdrawal, but also commitments that there will be no further aggression," she told the Sunday Telegraph.

“And also, there’s the opportunity to have snapback sanctions if there is further aggression in future. That is a real lever that I think can be used.”

Moscow has indicated that it could scale back its offensive to focus on what it claimed was the “main goal, the liberation of Donbas”, the region bordering Russia in the east of Ukraine.

But Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said he would not give up territory in peace talks as he noted that his troops had delivered “powerful blows” to invading forces.

Mr Zahawi said that the Russian military was having “real problems” as the Ukrainians have “fought like lions”.

The latest intelligence update from the Ministry of Defence said that the Kremlin’s forces “appear to be concentrating their effort to attempt the encirclement of Ukrainian forces” in the east of the country.

“The battlefield across northern Ukraine remains largely static with local Ukrainian counter-attacks hampering Russian attempts to reorganise their forces,” the ministry said.

Mr Zelenskyy renewed his plea for western allies to provide tanks and fighter jets to repel the Russians, as he praised the courage of his troops defending the besieged city of Mariupol.

“If only those who have been thinking for 31 days on how to hand over dozens of jets and tanks had 1 per cent of their courage,” he said.

Updated: March 28, 2022, 4:15 AM