(CNN) – A few unwritten words made an already nervous world nervous again.
President Joe Biden’s proposal in Poland on Saturday that Vladimir Putin’s attack on Ukraine should disqualify him sparked an international political firestorm.
Back in Washington Sunday night, Biden told reporters that he did not call for regime change in Russia, reflecting a message that was repeatedly voiced 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 hitherto elusive hope of a ceasefire. Others are political and relate to Biden’s position at home, amid a deluge of Republican criticism, and internationally, while seeking to hold the Western coalition together.
Has the president’s remark already escalated dangerously 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 the discomfort over Biden’s remarks in European capitals?
Will the idea that Biden hopes to oust Putin, even if the US says he is not, harden the determined Russian leader’s determination to negotiate or further escalate an already relentless war against civilians?
Did Biden’s now provocative rhetoric about Putin effectively exclude any future direct diplomacy or meetings between the world’s major nuclear powers, and could it jeopardize world peace if they could not communicate in a future crisis that threatened humanity?
Or will Biden’s human response to spending time with Ukrainian refugees soon be overwhelmed by the daily horrors of war or seen as a strong moral standpoint that has changed the way the world views the Russian leader? After all, some of his own assistants initially opposed former President Ronald Reagan’s call for then-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to “break down this wall” in Berlin as provocative.
And lastly, given that Moscow already considers extremely severe Western sanctions to be economic warfare and given Putin’s deeply conspiratorial view of the West and his role in the victory of the Soviet Union, a few single presidential words that make everyone in Washington rank really aggravate?
A quick attempt at clarification
This was evident from the speed with which administration officials worked to explain Biden’s remark that they knew it could be a major issue that could potentially exacerbate an already tense European geopolitical struggle.
In an unwritten remark, Biden said, “For God’s sake, this man can not stay in power,” referring to Putin. A White House official said Biden meant “Putin could not be allowed to exercise power over his neighbors or the region” and said Biden did not refer to regime change. Foreign Minister Antony Blinken was even more blunt on Sunday during a trip to Jerusalem.
“We do not have a regime change strategy in Russia, or anywhere else,” Blinken said. “In this case, as it is anyway, it depends on the people of the country concerned. It depends on the Russian people.”
The explanatory language was unconvincing given the clear context of the original quote. But a remark with such implications in a time of high tension had to clearly stand back. And fast.
Any idea that the US sees the conflict as an attempt to overthrow Putin would be dangerous as it would escalate the clash into a direct confrontation between the US and Russia.
Biden tried diligently to avoid that scenario, especially by blocking a Polish plan to send Soviet-made fighter jets to Ukraine to avoid the impression that NATO was playing a more direct role in the war. The situation is already at a knife’s edge, as large Western shipments of anti-aircraft and tank missiles are fueling strong Ukrainian resistance and are believed to be causing major Russian casualties.
A propaganda gift for Putin
There is no doubt that Biden handed over a propaganda gift to Putin that could undermine the hard work of the US president himself in keeping 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 alleviate the political pressure that the West hopes to generate through strict sanctions designed to change Putin’s calculation.
But Biden’s initial attempts to personify the conflict with Putin and characterize the war as a direct confrontation between the United States and Russia have been undermined in recent days by his own tough-talking rhetoric against the Russian leader. He made it known earlier this month that he believed Putin was a war criminal after ruthless attacks on Ukrainian cities and civilians caused a mass exodus of refugees.
Biden’s remark about 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’. Biden had previously called him a “thug” and a “murderous dictator.” And the script from which he made the now infamous remark was itself aggressive, and expected what Biden said was a long battle, which looked a lot like a new Cold War.
As 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 response to great suffering.
“He went to the National Stadium in Warsaw and met literally hundreds of Ukrainians,” the US ambassador to NATO, Julianne Smith, told CNN’s Dana Bash on Sunday about “State of the Union”.
“At this point, I think it was an initial human response to the stories I heard that day,” Smith said, reiterating that the United States does not have a policy of regime change in Russia.
But a president’s words must also be chosen carefully. As Saturday’s drama showed, it only takes a moment to cause a dangerous diplomatic crisis.
Republicans ask Biden to stick to the script
Biden has largely succeeded in reversing its propensity for error during its 2020 bid, during a campaign stripped of spontaneous moments by the Covid-19 pandemic. It was a pity that his old habits of speaking his mind at inconvenient moments had now resurfaced.
Republicans on Sunday grabbed the president’s outspoken remarks and tried to give the impression that Biden had responded well to Putin’s provocations so far over the Ukraine crisis. It is clear that they not only had national security in mind, but also politics before the midterm elections, which are shaped by the president’s declining approval ratings. And in some of the criticism, there was a feeling that Republicans were playing in the conservative media troop that Biden was old, not in full control and could lead the United States 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 IDP base.
Speaking on CNN’s “State of the Union,” Idaho Senator Jim Risch, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, apparently underlined the administration’s message about opposition to regime change in Moscow. find a way to hit Biden’s ability to lead.
While praising Biden’s speech in Poland, the Idaho Republican said, “There was a terrible mistake right at the end. I just wish it stayed in writing.”
“This administration has done everything possible to stop the escalation,” Risch said. But he added: “There is not much more you can do to escalate than to ask for regime change.”
Ohio Republican Senator Rob Portman was a little more moderate, but no less critical.
“Firstly, I think all of us believe that the world would be a better place without Vladimir Putin. But secondly, it is not official US policy. And if we say that, that regime change is playing our strategy, effectively in the hands of Russians. propagandists and playing into the hands of Vladimir Putin, “Portman said on NBC’s” Meet the Press. “
Biden’s remarks shocked Europe and Washington. And it seemed to irritate French President Emmanuel Macron, who was a key figure in unsuccessful attempts to persuade Putin to agree to a ceasefire.
“I will not use such terms because I am still in talks with President Putin,” Macron told France 3 TV when asked about Biden’s remark that the Russian leader was a “butcher”.
It is unlikely that any future ceasefire agreement that Putin agrees to will emerge from US diplomacy, given the deep-seated 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 branded as 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 difficult to see meaningful dialogue while Putin is still in power.