The US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, has insisted the country does not have “a strategy of regime change in Russia – or anywhere else”, hours after President Joe Biden described Vladimir Putin as a “butcher” who “cannot remain in power” .
Blinken’s intervention is the latest White House attempt to walk back the inflammatory remarks Biden made in a speech in Poland on Saturday.
In comments taken by many as a call for regime change in Moscow, Biden said: “For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power.”
The US president said Putin was “bent on violence”, adding there was “simply no justification or provocation for Russia’s choice of war” in Ukraine.
Minutes after Biden spoke, the White House scrabbled to play down his words, saying the president “was not discussing Putin’s power in Russia, or regime change”. According to one official, the speech was not a call to overthrow the Russian president, but rather an attempt to prepare the world’s democracies for an extended conflict.
Blinken was even more emphatic when he addressed the issue during a visit to Jerusalem on Sunday.
“I think the president, the White House, made the point last night that, quite simply, President Putin cannot be empowered to wage war or engage in aggression against Ukraine or anyone else,” he said.
“As you know, and as you have heard us say repeatedly, we do not have a strategy of regime change in Russia – or anywhere else, for that matter.”
Biden’s belligerent comments have caused consternation in the US and beyond. Richard Haass, the veteran American diplomat and president of the US Council on Foreign Relations, said his words about him had been counter-productive and damaging.
“The comments by @potus made a difficult situation more difficult and a dangerous situation more dangerous,” Haass wrote on Twitter. “That is obvious. Less obvious is how to undo the damage, but I suggest his chief aides reach their counterparts & make clear US prepared to deal with this Russian govt.”
Haass added: “As has been said, you can only go to war with the army you have. No less true is you can only end a war with the adversary you have. That Putin’s Russia has acted criminally does not alter this truth. Regime change may be a hope but it cannot constitute the basis of our strategy.”
Tobias Ellwood, the British MP who serves as the chair of the Commons defense select committee, said the comment had been “unwise” and would be seized on by Putin.
“It’s for the Russian people to draw this (obvious) conclusion,” Ellwood wrote on Twitter. “Putin/Xi (& many Russians) will now read ‘regime change’ as POTUS’ wider objective – beyond supporting Ukraine. Putin will spin this, dig in and fight harder.”
The British government said Putin’s future was a matter for the people of Russia.
“The Russian people, I think, are pretty fed up with what is happening in Ukraine, this illegal invasion, the destruction of their own livelihoods, their economy is collapsing around them and I think the Russian people will decide the fate of Putin and his cronies,” the education secretary, Nadhim Zahawi, told Sky News on Sunday morning.
Asked whether Biden had been wrong to say what he had, Zahawi replied: “No, what I’m saying to you is the White House has been very clear on this, the president gave a very powerful speech on this and I think both the United States and the United Kingdom agree that it’s up to the Russian people to decide who should be governing them.”
in his starkest speech since Russia invaded Ukraine a month ago, Biden had accused Putin of using “brute force and disinformation” to satisfy his craving for “absolute power and control”. The US president also described the invasion of Ukraine as “a direct challenge to the rule-based international order” established following the end of the second world war.
“We emerged anew in the great battle for freedom,” Biden said. “The battle between democracy and autocracy. Between liberty and repression. Between a rules-based order and one governed by brute force.
“This battle will not be won in days or months,” he added. “We need to steel ourselves for a long fight ahead.”
Biden quoted Pope John Paul II’s 1979 “be not afraid” speech and highlighted eastern Europe’s defiance of acts of Soviet aggression.
“The battle for democracy did not conclude with the fall of the Berlin Wall,” the president said. “Today Russia has strangled democracy and sought to do so elsewhere, not just in its homeland.”
Biden’s address came as Russia launched symbolic missile strikes on the Ukrainian city of Lviv, 40 miles from the Polish border.
On Sunday, the leader of the Russian-backed, self-proclaimed Luhansk People’s Republic in eastern Ukraine said the region could hold a referendum soon on joining Russia.
“I think that in the near future a referendum will be held on the territory of the republic,” Leonid Pasechnik said. “The people will exercise their ultimate constitutional right and express their opinion on joining the Russian Federation.”
Russia last month recognized the Luhansk and Donetsk self-proclaimed republics as independent and ordered what it called a peacekeeping operation in the region shortly after.
Reuters contributed to this report
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism