US President Joe Biden said Saturday that Vladimir Putin “cannot remain in power,” dramatically escalating the rhetoric against the Russian leader after his brutal invasion of Ukraine.
Even as Biden’s words rocketed around the world, the White House attempted to clarify soon after Biden finished speaking in Poland that he was not calling for a new government in Russia.
“For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power,” Biden said at the very end of a speech in Poland’s capital that served as the capstone on a four-day trip to Europe.
A White House official asserted that Biden was “not discussing Putin’s power in Russia or regime change.” The official, who was not authorized to comment by name and spoke on the condition of anonymity, said Biden’s point was that “Putin cannot be allowed to exercise power over his neighbors or the region.”
The White House declined to comment on whether Biden’s statement about Putin was part of his prepared remarks.
The Kremlin dismissed the remarks, saying it was up to Russians to choose their own president.
Asked about Biden’s comment, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told Reuters: “That’s not for Biden to decide. The president of Russia is elected by Russians.”
Biden has frequently talked about ensuring that the Kremlin’s invasion, now in its second month, becomes a “strategic failure” for Putin and has described the Russian leader as a “war criminal.”
But until his remarks in Warsaw, the American leader had not veered toward suggesting Putin should not run Russia. Earlier on Saturday, shortly after meeting with Ukrainian refugees, Biden called Putin a “butcher.”
Last week, Biden branded Putin a “war criminal” for the first time following a Russian bombing on a theater being used as a bomb shelter in the besieged Ukrainian city of Mariupol.
Biden’s spokesperson Jen Psaki said then that he had spoken “from his heart” in reaction to the images of Russian attacks on civilians, indicating that his comment may not have larger policy implications.
She said a review by the State Department regarding the war criminal designation, which has legal ramifications, is still ongoing.
The Kremlin quickly punched back, calling the comment “unacceptable and unforgivable on the part of the head of a state, whose bombs have killed hundreds of thousands of people around the world.”
The US president repeated the accusation on Friday during his visit to Poland.