In a sweeping and forceful speech concluding a four-day trip to Europe, President Joe Biden cast the war in Ukraine on Saturday as part of an ongoing battle for freedom and ended with a blunt call for Russian President Vladimir Putin to be stopped.
“For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power,” Biden said during a visit to Warsaw, Poland, in his strongest comments to date about his desire to see Putin gone.
Shortly after the speech, a White House official speaking on the condition of anonymity said Biden was not calling for Putin to be removed from office.
“The president’s point was that Putin cannot be allowed to exercise power over his neighbors or the region,” the official said. “He was not discussing Putin’s power in Russia, or regime change.”
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov responded that “it’s not up to the president of the US and not up to the Americans to decide who will remain in power in Russia.”
“Only Russians, who vote for their president, can decide that,” Peskov said.
Biden’s speech was delivered hours after meeting with Polish President Andrzej Duda during a historic visit Saturday where the allies presented a united front against Russian aggression and reaffirmed their commitment to the NATO alliance.
Biden later met with Ukrainian refugees, including children who asked him to “say a prayer for my dad or my grandfather or my brother. He’s back there fighting.”
Was it a gaffe or an escalation?:Biden stirs concern with remark that Putin ‘cannot remain in power’
Latest movements:Mapping and tracking Russia’s invasion of Ukraine
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►In remarks from Warsaw, Biden slammed Putin as a “butcher” for the unprovoked invasion of Ukraine and said the West “has never been stronger.” Poland has been on the front lines of the refugee crisis, having accepted some 2 million Ukrainians fleeing the war.
LVIV, Ukraine — Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy angrily warned Moscow that it is sowing a deep hatred for Russia among his people.
“You are doing everything so that our people themselves leave the Russian language, because the Russian language will now be associated only with you, with your explosions and murders, your crimes,” Zelenskyy said in an impassioned video address late Saturday.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has ground into a war of attrition in many places, with the toll on civilians rising as Moscow seeks to pound cities into submission from entrenched positions.
A nuclear research facility in the besieged city of Kharkiv, near the Russian border, again came under fire Saturday, and Ukraine’s nuclear watchdog said that because of ongoing hostilities it was impossible to assess the extent of the damage.
After four days of alliance building, emotional interactions with refugees and stirring words about the need to fight for democracy, one sentence that President Joe Biden appeared to tack on to the end of his final speech in Poland threatened to overshadow all he had achieved as he deals with the most significant foreign policy crisis of his presidency.
“For God’s sake,” Biden said of Russian President Vladimir Putin, “this man cannot remain in power.”
The White House tried to quickly walk it back.
Biden was not promoting regime change, said an official who spoke on the condition of anonymity. The point the president was trying to make in his remarks about him was that Putin “cannot be allowed to exercise power over his neighbors or the region.”
Biden may have been saying what he believes, but it was not smart policy to say it aloud, said Tom Schwartz, a historian of US foreign relations at Vanderbilt University. Read more here.
— Maureen Groppe and Michael Collins
A spokesperson for the Kremlin on Saturday said President Joe Biden’s statement that Vladimir Putin “cannot remain in power” was “extremely negative” for US relations with Russia.
“Only Russians, who vote for their president, can decide that,” Dmitry Peskov told The Associated Press. “And of course it is unbecoming for the president of the US to make such statements.”
The White House walked back Biden’s initial statements in Poland, claiming the president was not endorsing regime change, but meant that “Putin cannot be allowed to exercise power over his neighbors or the region.”
Peskov said that with Biden’s statements, he was “narrowing the window of opportunity for our bilateral relations under the current administration.”
LVIV, Ukraine — Several rockets struck the western Ukrainian city of Lviv on Saturday in what officials say were two separate attacks.
The powerful explosions frightened a city that had been a haven for hundreds of thousands of people fleeing the Russian assault on other parts of Ukraine.
The regional governor, Maksym Kozytskyy, said on Facebook that preliminary indications were five people were injured in the first attack but did not specify what the two rockets hit. Hours later, I have reported three more explosions outside the city, again with no details.
Lviv Major Andriy Sadovyi called the second round of explosions a rocket attack, saying it did significant damage to an unspecified “infrastructure object.”
Lviv had been largely spared since Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine, although missiles struck an aircraft repair facility near the international airport a week ago.
The back-to-back attacks on Saturday brought a chill to residents and displaced Ukrainians who had seen Lviv as a relatively safe place to rebuild their lives. Home to about 700,000 people before the invasion, the city has absorbed many more.
LVIV, Ukraine — The governor of the Lviv region says a man was detained on suspicion of espionage at the site of one of the two rocket attacks that rattled the city on Saturday.
Maksym Kozytskyy said police found the man had recorded a rocket flying toward the target and striking it. Police also found on his telephone photos of checkpoints in the region, which Kozytskyy said had been sent to two Russian telephone numbers.
Rockets hit an oil storage facility and an unspecified industrial facility, wounding at least five people. A thick plume of smoke and towering flames could be seen on Lviv’s outskirts hours after the attacks.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism