Biden’s fierce rhetoric strays from cautious balance on Russia

It was one of the last sentences Joe Biden uttered publicly in Europe before heading to Air Force One for the flight back to America – a final dig at Vladimir Putin for his increasingly brutal war in Ukraine.

“For the love of God, this man cannot stay in power,” the US president said.

The words capped a pugnacious speech in the cobbled courtyard of the Royal Castle in Warsaw at the end of a hastily organized three-day visit to Poland and Belgium aimed at keeping Western allies together in the face of Russia.

The White House moved quickly to clarify the comment, without saying whether it was scripted or not. Biden was not advocating “regime change”, he said, simply pointing out that Putin could not be “allowed to wield power” over his neighbors.

But this fiery moment may still represent a turning point in the US approach to the conflict in Ukraine and the standoff with Russia – moving towards even greater near-term confrontation and fierce strategic rivalry as long as Putin remains in the Kremlin.

“By engaging in a long war and rarely talking about peace, this rhetoric – adding to Putin’s warmongering – strongly suggests that this war is now unlikely to be settled at the negotiating table,” he said. said David Gergen, a former White House adviser. and professor of public service at Harvard Kennedy School.

“[It] was so harsh that one could be forgiven for thinking that we increasingly have a new Cold War on our hands and that President Biden has chosen to be its Western leader.

Ahead of the final stop in Warsaw, top Biden administration officials believed the president had accomplished what he planned on his trip to Europe. One of the goals was to cement relations and coordinate strategy with NATO allies ahead of tougher decisions ahead if Putin escalates the war, including using weapons of mass destruction.

Another was to present a plan to reduce Europe’s dependence on Russian energy imports. A third was to show more support for Ukraine and its government, by meeting senior officials in Kyiv and then visiting refugees at a stadium in the Polish capital.

Throughout, he insisted and reaffirmed that America would protect “every square inch” of NATO territory – a commitment that was particularly important to his hosts in Warsaw.

On Friday, White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters on the Brussels-Rzeszow flight in eastern Poland that Biden seemed energized by the mission. “He believes passionately in NATO, in the transatlantic relationship,” Sullivan said.

The 79-year-old US president also seemed emboldened by changing military dynamics on the ground in Ukraine, with Russian forces failing to take control of the biggest cities and refocusing on fully capturing the region. eastern Donbass.

“Putin thought the Ukrainians would turn around and not fight. Not much of a history student. Russian forces met their match with brave and steadfast Ukrainian resistance,” Biden said, even as explosions rocked the western city of Lviv 402 kilometers away as he spoke.

But despite Biden’s confidence, there is still huge uncertainty about the course of the war as well as Putin’s intentions and the ability of European allies to keep economic pressure on Moscow in the long term. During the trip, the United States said it was prepared to impose sanctions on third countries that facilitate Russia’s invasion, potentially extending the financial sanction to individuals and businesses in major economies such as China and India, but it is not clear whether Europe would accept this.

Whether it was planned or not, even Biden’s suggestion that the United States would like to see new leadership in the Kremlin has raised fears that Washington could lose control of its message on the war – including that Putin’s grip on power could only be determined by the Russians. . Biden may have crossed a line he had no intention of crossing at a time when Putin is seen as unstable and cornered.

“The return to the White House of [Biden’s] the call for regime change is unlikely to wash out. Putin will see it as confirmation of what he has always believed,” Richard Haass, chairman of the Council on Foreign Relations think tank, tweeted on Saturday.

“Bad lack of discipline which risks extending the scope and duration of the war.”

It may also have obscured the original purpose of the Warsaw Speech – as a battle cry about how democracies could look at autocracies and win, evoking Central and Eastern Europe’s resistance to Soviet Union during the Cold War.

Biden cited Pope John Paul II’s ‘Do not be afraid’ plea, remembered Lech Walesa, the face of Poland’s opposition in the 1980s, and said the battles in Kyiv, Mariupol and Kharkiv echoed the uprisings in Hungary in 1956, Poland in 1981 and Czechoslovakia. in 1968.

But on the streets of Warsaw, Biden’s stance on the war has been generally welcomed. At Central Station, Vitalia Lisitsyna, a cardiologist who fled Stryi in western Ukraine with her mother, said she had “a lot of respect” for Biden because he was “very responsible” and “helping our people”.

Kasia Lewis, a lawyer from Krakow who now lives in California and was walking near the Hala Mirowska market on Saturday afternoon, says she appreciates that Biden “says things that other people are reluctant to say” – and that the rest of the world tends to follow.

After the speech, she said, “His resolute rhetoric has helped shape the narrative of the war in Ukraine so far and paved the way for Putin to become the most hated individual on the planet.”

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