The moment he said it I thought, “Did the White House deliberate over this and conclude that calling for regime change was advisable? Or did Biden ad lib a line this fraught with danger?”
We already have an answer.
If you think he’s been too weak in his response to Russia, here’s some good news, I guess. It doesn’t get any tougher (rhetorically) than ending a speech in Warsaw by calling for Putin to be deposed.
— Tommy moderna-vaX-Topher (@tommyxtopher) March 26, 2022
His speech today was shot through with bravado (“Don’t even think about moving on one single inch of NATO territory!”) but the line about Putin not remaining in power is “a quote that may be referenced for years to come,” as the Times delicately put it.
Threatening Putin personally is such a bad idea that I’ve wondered if the White House should explicitly say that we’re *not* seeking regime change in Russia. Putin wants Russians to believe that Ukrainian statehood is some sort of NATO plot against their country; clarifying that we have no designs on toppling Russia’s government would make it harder for him to frame his war as self-defense. Instead, Biden just ratified his theory: For America, it seems, the endgame isn’t an independent Ukraine but the decapitation of Russia’s government. The whole premise of the conflict, that NATO is a defensive alliance whose members pose no threat to Moscow, has been undermined.
If unrest in Russia over the war ever does begin to boil over, it’ll be child’s play now for the Kremlin to convince Russians who are on the fence that anti-Putin demonstrators are stooges of the U.S. government.
The specter of western-backed regime change isn’t just propaganda aimed at exploiting Russian patriotism, though. Putin fears it to his marrow. Reportedly he was haunted by the scenes of Moammar Qaddafi being killed by his subjects in Libya during an uprising supported by the U.S. and Europe:
In his book All the Kremlin’s Men, Mikhail Zygar, a former editor in chief of the independent Russian TV station Rain, writes that Putin’s entourage whispered in his ear, “Medvedev betrayed Libya, he will betray you as well.” Medvedev had expressed sympathy with the protesters in the Arab world and their democratic aspirations, and would later be accused of having had a hand in Russian protests months later against alleged vote rigging, the largest demonstrations the country had seen since the fall of the Soviet Union. All of these factors only added to Putin’s paranoia.
Zygar writes that “Putin was apoplectic” when Gaddafi was killed. According to several accounts, including current CIA chief William Burns’s book The Back Channel, Putin frequently replayed the gruesome footage of Gaddafi being captured in a drainage pipe, being beaten to death. The capture, trial, and execution of Saddam Hussein did not seem to affect Putin as much. He had flippantly told French President Nicolas Sarkozy that he would hang Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili just as “the Americans had hanged Saddam Hussein.” But the lesson Putin drew from Libya was different: Being a pariah had served Gaddafi best; only when he had opened up to the West had they come after him.
A few days ago, Putin’s spokesman was asked under what conditions he would consider using nuclear weapons. His answer: If Russia is facing an “existential threat.” Putin might not distinguish an existential threat to Russia from an existential threat to his own power, though. If Biden’s remark convinces him that NATO will stop at nothing less than his ouster, is he more likely to use nukes in Ukraine than he was yesterday?
Even if the answer is “no,” one of the carrots we’ve dangled at Russia to get them to withdraw is some form of sanctions relief. Having now heard that Biden wants him out of power, Putin might reasonably conclude that most sanctions will remain in place even after the war ends, so long as he continues to rule Russia. His incentive to retreat is now gone. He might as well stick it out in Ukraine and slug away.
Meanwhile, diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Russia are presumably broken beyond repair. I assume Putin will recall the Russian ambassador to the U.S. and/or expel America’s ambassador to Russia. To the extent that the two sides were coordinating on deconfliction in Ukraine — not very much, it seems — there’s apt to be even less after Biden’s remark, increasing the risk of a dangerous miscalculation by both sides.
I could go on and on. If the cause here is regime change in Russia, not Ukrainian sovereignty, why is the entire burden being left to Ukraine? If Putin is still in charge when the war ends, does that now amount to a Russian victory?
What was the White House thinking? Why would they foolishly escalate by calling for ousting the leader of Russia?
The answer: “They” didn’t. Biden ad libbed it. The official walkback came quickly after his speech:
From a White House official after Biden's speech: “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.”
— Tarini Parti (@tparti) March 26, 2022
U.S. officials confirm what had become readily apparent: Biden’s declaration that Putin should not remain in power was NOT in the prepared text.
The White House put out a clarifying statement a few minutes later
— Jonathan Lemire (@JonLemire) March 26, 2022
He clearly was discussing regime change, but this is the best a frantic White House comms team can do spin-wise to clean it up. It’s also at least the third time on this foreign trip that they’ve had to “clarify” something Biden has said after the fact:
Multiple times on this trip the WH has clarified Biden’s remarks:
– US won’t use chemical weapons after Biden says US would respond to Russian chemical attack “in kind”
– US troops won’t go to Ukraine after telling 82nd airborne of what horror they’re “about to see”
— Jacqui Heinrich (@JacquiHeinrich) March 26, 2022
How does a guy with 50 years’ experience in foreign policy at the Senate level or higher ad lib a line as momentous as calling for regime change in Russia during a hot war in Europe? We’ll have to wait for the reporting tomorrow, but my guess is that he got caught up in the moment. Here he was in the heart of the old Soviet bloc, living his dream as leader of the free world by staring down a sinister Russian leader, delivering a speech to an audience of Poles who were far more excited to see him than any American audience is. He’d spent the day meeting Ukrainian refugees and hearing stories of the terrible suffering across the border. He probably had Reagan’s famous “tear down this wall” speech in Berlin echoing in his ears when he stepped to the mic and felt the energy, wanting to produce something equally memorable.
What he ended up saying … certainly was memorable, I’ll give him that. Calling for regime change in Russia is what happens when “tear down this wall” gets filtered through the mind of a 79-year-old whose brain is already half oatmeal.
But hey, I also thought Trump’s assassination of Qassem Soleimani would touch off a war between the U.S. and Iran and was wrong about that. Sometimes a bit of reckless bravado succeeds in intimidating the enemy rather than provoking him. Maybe Grandpa Simpson knew what he was doing here?
Yeah, I don’t believe it either.