President Joe Biden aimed squarely at Vladimir Putin in an impassioned address in Warsaw directed at Ukrainians, Europeans and the global community, blaming the Russian president for the monthlong siege on Ukraine and saying, “for God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power.”
By doing so, Biden drew a red line — but not militarily, as his administration did by denying Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s desperate requests for a no-fly zone Over his country, a move Biden said would lead to “World War III.”
Such strong words by the U.S. president Saturday effectively end any further chance of U.S.-Russia diplomacy, and they set the U.S. and Russia again on opposite sides in an ideological divide that Biden warned would “not be won in days or months,” invoking the painful struggles of former communist nations – including Poland – to separate from the former USSR.
Jeremi Suri, a history professor at the University of Texas at Austin, said Biden's words were striking.
"Biden invoked a common “civilized” purpose in fighting the tyrant and he called for his explicit removal," he told VOA. "A president has never used this language for Russia, even during the Cold War."
He said that the speech echoed language used by U.S. presidents against leaders such as Iraq's Saddam Hussein and Libya's Moammar Gadhafi.
"This is strong stuff," Suri said. "We are now on the side of overthrowing Putin -- regime change."
But just minutes later, Biden’s administration walked back some of his rhetoric, with a senior administration official telling reporters: “The president’s point was that Putin cannot be allowed to exercise power over his neighbors or the region. He was not discussing Putin’s power in Russia, or regime change.”
The Kremlin was dismissive of the president’s remarks when asked about them after the speech. Its chief spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said Russians would decide who their leader should be.
“That’s not for Biden to decide. The president of Russia is elected by Russians.”
Biden also praised the Ukrainian people, who have conscripted every able-bodied adult male to the fight, which recently passed the one-month mark.
“Their brave resistance is part of a larger fight for essential democratic principles that unite all free people: the rule of law; fair and free elections; the freedom to speak, to write and assemble; the freedom to worship as one chooses; the freedom of the press: these principles are essential in a free society,” Biden said to the crowd of nearly 1,000 people. It included Ukrainian and Polish officials, ordinary citizens and diplomats who crowded in the courtyard in the biting cold at Warsaw’s Royal Castle, which was lit in the colors of the Ukrainian and Polish flags, blue and yellow, red and white.
Biden also appealed to the Russian people, saying, “This is not who you are. This is not the future reserve you deserve for your families, and your children. I'm telling you the truth. This war is not worthy of you, the Russian people.”
The speech comes at the very end of a whirlwind diplomatic tour, in which Biden met with NATO, European and G-7 leaders in Brussels and then headed to southeastern Poland, where Patriot missiles were prominently parked near a temporary U.S. base, within easy range of western Ukraine.
The city of Lviv, just 50 miles from the Polish border, has come under increasing attack in recent days and was struck by rockets in two attacks Saturday. When asked earlier in the day if Putin has adjusted his bold, all-fronts conventional warfare strategy on Ukraine, Biden replied, “I don’t think he has.”