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 God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power,” the US president said.
The words capped a pugnacious speech in the cobblestoned courtyard of Warsaw’s Royal Castle at the end of a hastily arranged three-day visit to Poland and Belgium aimed at keeping western allies together in confronting Russia.
The White House quickly moved to clarify the comment, without saying whether or not it was scripted. Biden was not advocating for “regime change”, it said, just pointing out that Putin could not be “allowed to exercise power” over his neighbours.
But that fiery moment may still represent a turning point in America’s approach to the conflict in Ukraine and the stand-off with Russia — shifting towards even greater confrontation in the near term and fierce strategic rivalry as long as Putin remains in the Kremlin.
“In committing to a long war and speaking rarely of peace, this speech — coming on top of Putin’s own bellicosity — heavily suggests that this war is now unlikely to be settled at the negotiating table,” said David Gergen, a former White House adviser and professor of public service at the Harvard Kennedy School.
“[It] was so hard hitting that one could be forgiven in thinking that we increasingly have a new Cold War on our hands and that President Biden has chosen to be its western leader.”
Heading into the last stop in Warsaw, top Biden administration officials believed the president had accomplished what he set out to do on the trip to Europe. One goal was to solidify relations and co-ordinate strategy with Nato allies ahead of tougher decisions to come if Putin escalates the war, including through the use of weapons of mass destruction.
Another was to lay out a plan to reduce Europe’s dependence on Russian energy imports. A third was to show more support for Ukraine and its government, meeting with top officials from Kyiv and then visiting refugees at a stadium in the Polish capital.
All along, he emphatically stated and restated that America would protect “every inch” of the territory of Nato — a pledge that was particularly important to his hosts in Warsaw.
Jake Sullivan, the White House’s national security adviser, told reporters on the flight from Brussels to Rzeszow in eastern Poland on Friday that Biden seemed energised by the mission. “He just believes passionately in Nato, in the transatlantic relationship,” Sullivan said.
The 79-year-old US president has also appeared emboldened by the shifting military dynamic on the ground in Ukraine, with Russian forces failing to gain control of the largest cities and refocusing on fully capturing the eastern Donbas region instead.
“Putin thought Ukrainians would roll over and not fight. Not much of a student of history. Russian forces have met their match with brave and stiff Ukrainian resistance,” Biden said, even as explosions rocked the western city of Lviv 402 kilometres away while he was speaking.
But despite Biden’s confidence, there is still huge uncertainty about the course of the war as well as Putin’s intentions, and the capacity of European allies to sustain the economic pressure on Moscow over the long term. During the trip, the US said it was ready to impose sanctions on third countries that are facilitating Russia’s invasion, potentially extending the financial punishment to individuals and businesses in large economies such as China and India, but it is unclear if Europe would go along with that.
Whether it was planned or not, even the suggestion from Biden that the US would like to see new leadership in the Kremlin raised concerns that Washington is losing control of its message about the war — including that Putin’s hold on power could only be determined by Russians. Biden may have crossed a line he did not intend to cross at a time when Putin is seen as volatile and cornered.
“The White House walk-back of [Biden’s] regime change call is unlikely to wash. Putin will see it as confirmation of what he’s believed all along,” tweeted Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations think-tank on Saturday.
“Bad lapse in discipline that runs risk of extending the scope and duration of the war.”
It may also have clouded the original purpose of the Warsaw speech — as a battle cry for how democracies could stare down autocracies and come out on top, evoking central and eastern Europe’s resistance to the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
Biden cited Pope John Paul II’s “Be not afraid” call, remembered Lech Walesa, the face of the Polish 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 towards the war has been generally well received. At the central train 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 others hesitate to say” — and the rest of the world tends to follow.
After the speech, she said: “His resolute rhetoric has helped so far carve out the narrative around the war in Ukraine, and paved the way for making Putin the most hated individual on the planet.”