Washington: President Joe Biden said he wasn’t announcing a U.S. policy change when he declared Russian President Vladimir Putin “cannot remain in power,” but was expressing his own anger about the invasion of Ukraine.
“I’m not walking anything back. The fact of the matter is I was expressing the moral outrage I felt,” Biden told reporters Monday at the White House, after he was asked if he regretted a remark that had caused alarm in some allied capitals.
“I wasn’t then, nor am I now, articulating a policy change,” he added.
The unscripted aside Saturday as he wrapped up a speech in Poland on the Ukraine invasion immediately sparked concern the president had reinforced a Kremlin narrative that U.S. support for Kyiv is actually a pretext for overthrowing the Russian government.
Biden rejected complaints from foreign governments that his rhetoric was escalating the situation, and said the incident had not weakened the NATO alliance in any way. He also said he did not believe Putin could use his remarks to justify further action in Ukraine.
“The idea that he is going to do something outrageous because I called him for what he was and what he’s doing — I think it’s just not rational,” Biden said.
The view from European capitals was different. Leaders in France and the U.K., who have sought to show solidarity with the U.S. in opposing the Russian invasion, distanced themselves from Biden’s remark.
“We shouldn’t escalate, with words or actions,” French President Emmanuel Macron, who has been a conduit to Putin, said on French television. U.K. Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi, the cabinet member appearing on this week’s British morning shows, said Putin’s future should be “up to the Russian people.”
Biden showed frustration with the reaction to his remarks, answering curtly when reporters asked if he was concerned how Putin might respond. “I don’t care what he thinks,” the president said.
White House aides said the remark was unplanned and did not represent the government’s policy, arguing that Biden’s meaning was that Putin should not be empowered to wage war against his neighbors. Biden said he didn’t think he had escalated the conflict with his remark.
“He shouldn’t remain in power, just like bad people shouldn’t continue to do bad things, but it doesn’t mean we have a fundamental policy to do anything to take Putin down in any way,” Biden said.
Asked if he would meet with Putin again, Biden didn’t rule it out but said it would depend on what would come of the discussions.
The Kremlin seized on his Saturday remark. Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that the Russian people decide their government and the criticism would “narrow the window of opportunity for normalizing dialogue, so much needed now, with the current U.S. administration.”
Republican lawmakers also criticized Biden over the comments, with Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton characterizing Biden’s foreign policy as “the worst of all worlds.”
“He makes statements that have an effect on the world, his staff walks them back, and then Biden reverses again,” Cotton said in a tweet Monday.
Idaho Senator Jim Risch called Biden’s Saturday comment a “horrendous gaffe.”
“Anytime you say, or even as he did, suggest that the policy was regime change, it’s going to cause a huge problem,” he said Sunday in a CNN interview. –Bloomberg