WARSAW — In a carefully crafted speech aimed at rallying the world’s support for Ukraine, it was an ad-libbed line that caught the Kremlin’s attention.
“For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power,” Biden said of Russian President Vladimir Putin — an attention-grabbing line a source familiar with the situation said wasn’t included in the prepared remarks.
As some noted the comment sounded like a call for regime change in Russia, the White House quickly issued a statement saying otherwise.
“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,” said a White House official in a statement sent widely to reporters.
But the Kremlin was quick to seize on the remark. “That’s not for Biden to decide,” Putin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told Reuters. “The president of Russia is elected by Russians.” Russia has for years accused the U.S. and its allies of attempting to carry out regime change in its country.
It was one of several moments on his trip this week when the White House found itself looking to clarify Biden’s comments as administration officials work to carry out a carefully crafted strategy to put pressure on Putin to end the war without escalating the conflict beyond Ukraine’s borders.
Earlier in the day Saturday, while visiting a refugee center in Warsaw, Biden made news with another unscripted remark. When he was asked for his reaction to Putin’s actions in Ukraine, Biden told the reporter: “He’s a butcher.”
A day earlier, when speaking to U.S. troops stationed in Poland, Biden made remarks that seemed to suggest those troops would soon be going to Ukraine, even though he has said previously he will not send U.S. forces into the country.
“Look at how they’re stepping up. And you’re gonna see when you’re there, and some of you have been there, you’re gonna see,” Biden told the troops. “You’re gonna see women, young people, stand in the middle, in front of a damn tank, just saying ‘I’m not leaving. I’m holding my ground.’ They are incredible.”
When asked about the president’s comment then, a White House spokesperson told NBC News that “the President has been clear we are not sending U.S. troops to Ukraine and there is no change in that position.”
In Brussels earlier in the week, Biden contradicted past statements by Vice President Kamala Harris and other senior officials around the purpose of sanctions, saying they “never deter.”
Last month, Harris said “the purpose of the sanctions has always been, and continues to be, deterrence.” That same day, secretary of state Antony Blinken said “the purpose of the sanctions, in the first instance, is to try to deter Russia.”
Before heading off for his trip to Europe this week, Biden also contradicted his own administration over whether Putin was committing war crimes — broaching rhetorical ground his team had long avoided. When asked last week at the White House whether he was ready to call Putin a war criminal, Biden responded, “no.” He later came back, asked reporters to repeat the question, and said: “I think he is a war criminal.”
White House press secretary Jen Psaki says President Joe Biden was “speaking from his heart” when he described Putin that way, but that there is a legal process that will determine whether the Russian leader has technically committed war crimes.
This week, the State Department formally said Russian forces have committed war crimes in Ukraine, but didn’t specifically name Putin.
Kristen Welker and Kelly O’Donnell contributed.