Biden seeks to rally democracies against autocracy in Ukraine crisis

The White House rushed to clarify its comment, issuing a statement saying Biden didn’t really mean what he said.

“The president’s point was that Putin cannot be allowed to wield power over his neighbors or the region,” a White House official said in a statement. “He wasn’t talking about Putin’s power in Russia, or about 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 on Russia by a US 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 the Polish capital to send a clear and unequivocal message to Putin and the world: “Don’t even think about moving a single inch of NATO territory.”

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

Biden’s off-the-cuff comment that Putin should be removed from office came at the climax of his speech, and Biden himself seemed caught up in the force of his rhetoric – riding the wave of his speech until a nine-word statement. the aides did not intend for him to utter.

The remark surprised aides, who knew it was not included in his prepared remarks, said a person familiar with the matter who spoke on condition of anonymity to share candid details about a sensitive situation. Within minutes of the speech, administration officials — who have long been careful not to call for regime change in Russia — rushed to clarify Biden’s comments.

Russia was quick to intervene, with Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov telling state news agencies: “It’s not for Biden to decide. The President of Russia is elected by the Russians.

Biden’s harsh words toward Putin also took European policymakers by surprise and caused some to rush to try to figure out if the White House had just changed its policy in favor of impeaching the Russian leader.

“The speech was powerful, the ending interesting,” said a senior EU diplomat, speaking on 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 (DN.J.), born in Poland and President Bill Clinton’s foreign policy speechwriter, said he wouldn’t have recommended Biden make such a bold statement. Yet at the same time, he said he disagreed with the White House’s decision to backtrack.

“Presidents in particular have to be careful not to ask for things that we’re not prepared to make happen, but at the same time it was undeniably morally true and the implications are inevitable anyway,” he said. he declares. “Namely, that no president will ever again be able to have a normal relationship with Putin.”

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

“It’s Putin, Vladimir Putin, who is to blame – period,” Biden said.

Sometimes Biden addressed Russian audiences directly.

“Let me say this, if you are able to listen: you, the Russian people, are not our enemy,” Biden said.I refuse to believe that you welcome the murder of innocent children and grandparents or that you accept that hospitals, schools, maternities, for the love of God, be bombarded with missiles and Russian bombs or that towns are surrounded so that civilians cannot flee.

And he also spoke directly to the people of Ukraine, offering a message he said he conveyed to the highest Ukrainian government ministers earlier in the day: “We stand with you – period.”

In many ways, Biden’s speech – and his entire journey – provides a meaningful 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 United States can help pave the way to a freer and fairer future.

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

Outside the castle gates, larger crowds had lined up in the cold for several hours, eager to hear the US president’s speech, also shown on a big screen in Warsaw’s Old Town.

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

But as concerns grow over the continuation of the war and the potential escalation of Putin’s aggression against Ukraine with biological or nuclear weapons, Biden’s visit demonstrated both peril and promise. trying to manage a war against an unpredictable geopolitical enemy like Putin.

“It’s a 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 take into account the kind of cruelty that we see from President Putin, and that of course upsets the traditional calculus in a way that NATO doesn’t. has not fully considered.”

The success of the Ukrainian military in repelling Russia so far has surprised Western and Russian officials; both groups originally expected Moscow to easily take control of its western neighbor. But Ukraine still remains underarmed by a much more powerful Russian army. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has repeatedly appealed to the West for increased military assistance, including some demands – such as a no-fly zone over Ukraine – that the Biden administration and NATO are unwilling to grant.

In recent days, the Kremlin has publicly focused on controlling the Donbass region in eastern Ukraine, sparking 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 that the war shows no signs of abating.

Biden’s trip – and his handling of the crisis in Ukraine – provided an opportunity to highlight one of the key successes of his presidency. Last week, European leaders praised the US president, praising his leadership and working closely with his allies as they punished Moscow and helped the Ukrainians. After then-President Donald Trump spent years bashing NATO and threatening to pull out of the alliance, Biden 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 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 he decided we had to do this is that – the first few weeks – the unit can be driven by momentum, inertia and adrenaline, but it could be for a while” , said Jake Sullivan, of Biden’s national security. adviser, told reporters aboard Air Force One en route to Poland. “And maintaining that unity as costs rise, as tragedy unfolds, is hard work. And the president wanted to bring everyone together to say, “We have to do this job.”

But Biden’s off-the-cuff remark about removing Putin from power threatened to overshadow a speech that Biden and his team had been working on and hoped would serve as the culmination of his largely successful — and highly choreographed — journey.

In addition to the off-the-cuff remark, Biden’s rhetoric aimed at Moscow was stark compared to that of his immediate predecessors, including his former boss, Barack Obama, who was caught on the microphone telling the 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 said the Russian leader was “very blunt 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 challenger, Hillary Clinton, according to the collective conclusion of US intelligence agencies. Once in office, Trump frequently praised Putin and, at a summit in Helsinki in 2018, said he believed in 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 “scholarly.”

Instead, Biden’s harsh language on Saturday — which also included calling Putin a “dictator” and a “butcher” — was reminiscent of Reagan, who called the Soviet Union an “evil empire.” Referring to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev during a landmark speech in divided Berlin in 1987, Reagan said, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.

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

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

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

And despite Biden’s gaffe in his very last moments on Polish soil, White House officials have privately said they hope Biden’s three-day-abroad message, and his Saturday night speech, would pass, ensuring that the West remains united against Russia in what will likely be a long labor.

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

Michael Birnbaum in Washington contributed to this report.

Christi C. Elwood