(CNN) — A few unscripted words made an already nervous world nervous again.
President Joe Biden’s suggestion in Poland on Saturday that Vladimir Putin’s assault on Ukraine should disqualify him from power triggered an international political storm.
Back in Washington on Sunday night, Biden told reporters that he was not calling for regime change in Russia, echoing a message expressed multiple times by his subordinates even before he returned to the US.
But the global repercussions of the comments leave the administration facing serious questions. Some are strategic and could affect the future course of the war and the so far elusive hopes for a ceasefire. Others are political and relate to Biden’s position at home, amid a torrent of Republican criticism, and internationally, as she seeks to hold the Western coalition together.
Did the president’s comment dangerously escalate already high tensions in the worst confrontation between the West and Russia in decades?
Has Biden weakened international confidence in his hitherto strong leadership by bringing the NATO alliance into a united front against Moscow? And will Putin be able to exploit unease over Biden’s comments in European capitals?
Will the notion that Biden hopes to unseat Putin, even if the US says he is not, harden the embattled Russian leader’s resolve against negotiations or further escalate an already ruthless war against civilians?
Has Biden’s now stinging rhetoric on Putin effectively ruled out any future direct diplomacy or meetings between the world’s major nuclear powers, and could it jeopardize world peace if they are unable to communicate in a future crisis that threatens humanity?
Or will Biden’s humane reaction to spending time with Ukrainian refugees soon be overtaken by the daily horror of war or seen as a strong moral stand that changed the way the world views the Russian leader? After all, some of his own aides initially opposed former President Ronald Reagan’s call for then-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall” in Berlin as too provocative.
And finally, given that Moscow already sees extraordinarily harsh Western sanctions as economic warfare, and given Putin’s deeply conspiratorial view of the West and its role in defeating the Soviet Union, can a few single presidential words that rankle everyone in Washington really make things worse?
A quick effort at clarification
It was clear from the speed with which administration officials worked to clarify Biden’s comment that they knew it could be a big deal that could potentially worsen an already tense European geopolitical standoff.
In an unscripted comment, Biden said, “For God’s sake, this man cannot stay in power” in reference to Putin. A White House official said Biden meant “Putin cannot be allowed to wield power over his neighbors or the region” and said Biden was not referring to regime change. Secretary of State Antony Blinken was even more blunt during a trip to Jerusalem on Sunday.
“We don’t have a regime change strategy in Russia, or anywhere else,” Blinken said. “In this case, as it is in any case, it depends on the people of the country in question. It depends on the Russian people.”
The explanatory language was unconvincing given the clear context of the original quote. But a comment with such implications at a time of high tension clearly needed to back down. And fast.
Any idea that the US sees the conflict as an attempt to topple Putin would be dangerous as it would escalate the clash into a direct confrontation between the US and Russia.
Biden has scrupulously tried to avoid that scenario, in particular by blocking a Polish plan to send Soviet-made fighter jets to Ukraine to avoid the impression that NATO is taking a more direct role in the war. The situation is already on a knife edge, as huge Western shipments of anti-aircraft and anti-tank missiles are fueling strong Ukrainian resistance and apparently causing heavy Russian casualties.
A propaganda gift for Putin
There is no doubt that Biden handed Putin a propaganda gift that could undermine the hard work of the US president himself to keep the focus on Ukraine. The Moscow information complex will surely present the war to the Russian people as a hostile push by the West to further obscure the truth about the unprovoked attack on Ukraine. This could ease the political pressure the West hopes to generate through harsh sanctions designed to change Putin’s calculus.
But Biden’s initial efforts to avoid personalizing the conflict with Putin and characterizing the war as a direct confrontation between the United States and Russia have been undermined by his own tough-talking rhetoric toward the Russian leader in recent days. He made it known earlier this month that he believes Putin is a war criminal after relentless attacks on Ukrainian cities and civilians triggered a mass exodus of refugees.
Biden’s comment on the Russian leader’s tenure in power was not the only surprising rhetoric on his tour. After meeting with refugees on Saturday, Biden called Putin a “butcher.” Previously, Biden had called him a “thug” and a “murderous dictator.” And the script he went from to make the now-notorious comment was itself aggressive, and he anticipated what Biden said was a long fight, looking a lot like a new Cold War.
Given that Biden is likely to feel the burden of world peace on his shoulders and deep empathy for those who have lived through unspeakable tragedy in Ukraine, his outbursts on his tour of Europe can be understood as a human reaction to great suffering.
“He went to the National Stadium in Warsaw and literally met hundreds of Ukrainians,” US Ambassador to NATO Julianne Smith told CNN’s Dana Bash on “State of the Union” on Sunday.
“At this point, I think it was an initial human reaction to the stories that I had heard that day,” Smith said, again stressing that the United States did not have a policy of regime change in Russia.
But a president’s words must also be carefully chosen. As Saturday’s drama showed, it takes only a moment to cause a dangerous diplomatic crisis.
Republicans ask Biden to stick to the script
Biden largely succeeded in reversing his propensity for mistakes during his 2020 bid, during a campaign stripped of spontaneous moments by the Covid-19 pandemic. He was unfortunate that his old habits of speaking his mind at inopportune moments resurfaced now.
Republicans seized on the president’s outspoken comments on Sunday, seeking to dent the impression that Biden has responded well to Putin’s provocations so far on the Ukraine crisis. Clearly, they had not only national security on their minds, but also politics ahead of the midterm elections, which are being shaped by the president’s declining approval ratings. And in some of the criticism there was a sense that Republicans were playing into the conservative media trope that Biden is old, he’s not in full control and could lead America into war. Such a position conveniently ignores the tolerance of right-wing opinion hosts for former President Donald Trump’s volcanic rhetoric, but it has power in the GOP base.
Speaking on CNN’s “State of the Union,” Idaho Senator Jim Risch, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations committee, appeared to underscore the administration’s message about opposing regime change in Moscow while finding a way to hit Biden’s ability to lead.
While praising Biden’s speech in Poland, the Idaho Republican said, “There was a horrendous mistake right at the end. I just wish it stayed scripted.”
“This administration has done everything possible to stop the escalation,” Risch said. But he added: “There’s not much more you can do to escalate than call for regime change.”
Ohio Republican Senator Rob Portman was a bit more moderate but no less critical.
“First, I think all of us believe that the world would be a better place without Vladimir Putin. But second, that is not official US policy. And in saying that, that regime change is our strategy, effectively, plays into the hands of Russian propagandists and plays into the hands of Vladimir Putin,” Portman said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
Biden’s comments shocked both Europe and Washington. And they seemed to irritate French President Emmanuel Macron, who has been a key figure in unsuccessful attempts to get Putin to agree to a ceasefire.
“I wouldn’t use terms like that because I’m still in talks with President Putin,” Macron told France 3 television, when asked about Biden’s comment that the Russian leader was a “butcher.”
Any future ceasefire agreement Putin agrees to is unlikely to emerge from US diplomacy given the deep mutual hostility between Moscow and Washington.
But any final agreement, and indeed the long-term goal of preventing dangerous escalations between the world’s two leading nuclear powers, depends on them talking to each other. It was already hard to see how Biden could meet a Russian leader he has branded a war criminal. The events of this weekend made it even more difficult. And while the US goal in Moscow is not regime change, it is hard to see meaningful dialogue while Putin is still in charge.