At the end of what had been a largely flawless visit to Europe, during which he focused on the misery Vladimir Putin was imposing on Russia, Joe Biden closed his 27-minute speech on Saturday evening in Warsaw by conjuring up the image of a less popular US president – George W Bush – when he said: “For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power.”
The US president has previously called Putin a killer, a pure thug, a war criminal and a butcher, but he had never advocated regime change, risking turning the war for the defence of Ukraine to a familiar one of American aggression.
Biden can fairly say it was a personal expression of loathing, but during his election campaign he often said how much the words of an American president mattered and needed to be weighed. He would not be a Twitter loudmouth like the man he would later unseat, Donald Trump.
It was clear from the way White House aides initially avoided any comment to the media that the final ad-libbed line had not been expected and needed clarification. It was not the first time that his off-script remarks have required official reworking.
The press aides scrambled to undo the damage, interpreting Biden’s words not as a statement of intent, let alone presaging a plan of action, but instead a personal expression of moral revulsion. Later an official explained: “The president’s point was that Putin cannot be allowed to exercise power over his neighbours or the region. He was not discussing Putin’s power in Russia or regime change.”
But his remarks in their raw form hardly sat well with the UK government briefing on Saturday night that sanctions could be lifted if and when Putin left Ukraine. The British message was hardly that it would be business as usual – after all, Boris Johnson has said Putin must fail and be seen to fail – but the UK strategy set a potential end point to the sanctions. Biden’s remarks added another dimension.
At the end of a month marked by a clear single war aim – the defence of the territorial integrity of Ukraine – the position had suddenly been blurred. It was a badly needed gift to Moscow, which has hardly had a stellar information war. Skilled at playing Washington as the imperialist bully, Moscow was quick to claim that Russians – not American leaders – chose their president. The remarks also leave the many mediators in this crisis – Turkey, Qatar and China – facing a harder task in convincing Putin there is any merit in turning back now. It is all or nothing. The US president has burned his bridges with Russia and there is no point in any negotiation, Moscow will argue, whether it believes this or not.
Richard Haass, the chair of the Council on Foreign Relations, said: “The president just expanded US war aims, calling for regime change. However desirable it may be, it is not within our power to accomplish. Plus [it] runs [the] risk it will increase Putin’s inclination to see this as a fight to the finish, raising odds he will reject compromise, escalate, or both.
“His remarks made a difficult situation more difficult and a dangerous situation more dangerous. That is obvious. Less obvious is how to undo the damage, but I suggest his chief aides reach their counterparts and make clear that the US [is] prepared to deal with this Russian government.
“It discourages Putin from any compromise, essentially: if you’ve got everything to lose, it frees him up. Why should he show any restraint? And it confirms his worst fears, which is that this is what the United States seeks. His ouster and systemic change.”
What may be more worrying, especially if this war becomes prolonged, is the impact on the many powerful bystanders in this conflict. Western diplomacy pulled off a coup in March when Russia was left with only Eritrea, Belarus, North Korea and Syria coming to its side in a vote at the UN general assembly when 141 countries voted to condemn the invasion. But that left 35 countries, including powerful players such as India and China, not willing to condemn Russia at least through their vote. By no means all of the 141 countries have imposed sanctions, giving Roman Abramovich’s yachts many ports in a storm.
Even now there is an assumption in the US and Europe to see this purely as Russia versus the rest, as opposed to Russia versus the west.
There are many voices instinctively reluctant to defend America after 9/11. They are not prepared to see the conflict in terms of purely good versus evil, or to forget the past 30 years. The Saudi foreign minister, Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud, said: “It was mentioned that Mariupol is Europe’s Aleppo. Well, Aleppo was our Aleppo. The engagement of the global community – of the powers that could be affected – now and then was quite different.”
Hina Rabbani Khar, the former foreign minister of Pakistan, said the value system the west deployed inside its border was different from that outside its borders.
İbrahim Kalın, an experienced adviser to the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, never mentioned Biden by name but urged caution, saying: “Every step we take, every move that we make in regard to bringing an end to this war is going to have an impact on the future security architecture. Russia is not going to go away as a country.
“The power of this equilibrium that has shaped the international order ever since the end of the cold war over the last three decades has everything to do with this crisis. We have to create an environment in which every country, from Russia, Iran, the US, European countries, from Turkey to Gulf countries, feel safe enough in the international order that they do not resort to any kind of disruptive action. This is an unfair, unprovoked war, but whatever grievances Russia has had have to be understood – not justified, but understood. If everybody burns bridges with Russia there is no one talking to them at the end of the day.”
At least the episode may have the salutary effect of forcing the west to think more clearly about what its endgame may be. A permanently weakened Russia, humiliated while attempting to capture Ukraine, its lucrative European energy market permanently thrown away by Putin’s crazed misreading of history, is hardly going to form a secure basis for him to remain in power as long as he intends. Ideally he is defeated in elections or is bundled out the door by the security services. But that is Russia’s business, not Biden’s.