President Biden’s apparent off-the-cuff comment about Vladimir Putin in his speech Saturday in Warsaw—“For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power”—was hardly just an ad-lib moment: He not only was speaking the truth morally, but the president was also stating the obvious strategically. There can be no peace if the ambitious, revanchist, mafia-like Don Putin remains in charge in the Kremlin. Already he’s invaded Georgia, Ukraine twice, and he’s intervened in both the Syrian and Libyan civil wars—none of which has been done other than to advance his imperial Russian designs. Toss in the assassinations in Russia and abroad of Putin’s designated enemies, the assault on Russian civil liberties, and his authorization of government and private Russian cyberattacks on the West and it is impossible to imagine either real peace or real stability with Putin in power.
Yet it didn’t take but a Washington nanosecond for the White House to walk back Biden’s comment. “The president’s point was that Putin cannot be allowed to exercise power over his neighbors or the region,” an unidentified official said. “He was not discussing Putin’s power in Russia, or regime change.” On Sunday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken reiterated the point on television, saying that the administration was not in the business of pursuing “a strategy of regime change” in Moscow.
This walk-back makes it look like the president is not in command of his own policy—a look not at all helpful for someone sitting behind the desk in the Oval Office. Nevertheless, one can understand why officials thought explaining away Biden’s remark was necessary. First is the calculation that even suggesting the possibility of regime change evokes all kinds of bad political vibes post Iraq and Afghanistan. Second is the reality that because the United States and NATO have publicly waved off any intent to intervene directly in the war in Ukraine, it’s unlikely that there could be the kind of sweeping, decisive victory over the Russian forces that might lead to a demand that Putin step down or generate a palace coup in Moscow. Third, if that is the case, the reality is that Kyiv will be negotiating an armistice at some point with Putin still at the helm.
Nevertheless, Biden’s ad-lib was not the verbal blunder that the president is sometimes given to; it followed logically from the speech itself. As Biden pointedly noted in the speech, “the United States and NATO worked for months to engage Russia to avert war. … Time and again, we offered real diplomacy and concrete proposals to strengthen European security, enhance transparency, build confidence on all sides. But Putin and Russia met each of the proposals with disinterest in any negotiation, with lies and ultimatums.” The fact was, the president concluded, Putin “was bent on violence from the start.” By Biden’s own account of Putin, there can be no real peace for Ukraine and no peace of mind for Eastern Europe if he remains in power.