(Bloomberg) — US President Joe Biden castigated Russia’s leader, Vladimir Putin, in a speech in Poland on Saturday, repeatedly calling him a “dictator” and saying that he “cannot remain in power” after the Ukraine invasion.
Biden implored the world’s democracies to steel themselves for a protracted conflict with Putin’s government, his latest plea for allies to hold the line against an adversary he labeled a “butcher.”
“We need to be clear-eyed: This battle will not be won in days and months,” Biden said in a forceful speech at Warsaw’s Royal Castle on Saturday, the conclusion of a trip to Europe to show allied unity against Moscow. “We need to steel ourselves for the long fight ahead.”
He concluded his speech by remarking, “For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power.”
It wasn’t clear if the line had been in the text of the speech, and a White House official later said that Biden meant Putin could not be allowed to exercise power over his neighbors or the region and that the president was not calling for regime change in Russia.
It’s highly unusual for a US president to call explicitly for another leader to be removed from power, especially in a nuclear-armed country the size of Russia.
Former President Donald Trump sought to force Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro from power, and former President Barack Obama said in 2011 that Syria’s Bashar al-Assad “must go.” Both Maduro and Assad remain in control of their countries.
Biden invoked a famous anti-communist speech by former President Ronald Reagan, who in 1987 implored the Soviet Union to “tear down this wall” in Berlin. It fell just over two years later. Biden began his remarks in Warsaw by quoting Pope John Paul II’s 1979 speech in Poland, in which he implored the Polish people to “be not afraid” of oppressive regimes.
Earlier, Biden had an emotional visit with Ukrainian refugees that brought home the stakes of a conflict in which the US has vowed its military won’t directly intervene. Yet Biden himself said the war may precipitate “World War Three” without careful calibration.
It remains unclear if the US and its allies can help bring the conflict to an end without firing a shot themselves, as there were reports the Russians had attacked near Lviv, a city only about an hour from the Polish border, shortly before Biden’s speech. Biden has rebuffed Ukrainian pleas for NATO to close the country’s air space, China’s role in the conflict is murky, and questions abound about the effectiveness of financial sanctions and how quickly Europe can wean itself from Russian gas.
“The democracies of the world are revitalized with purpose and unity,” Biden said.
Biden, whose remarks were peppered with cheers from the audience, some of whom held up Polish, Ukrainian and American flags, issued a stark warning to Putin: “Don’t even think about moving on one single inch of NATO territory.
He said the US has “a sacred obligation” to “defend each and every inch of NATO territory.”
The White House estimated as many as 1,000 people — including Polish President Andrzej Duda, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba and Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, Belarus’sopposition leader — attended the speech, along with local students US embassy staff.
“My message to the people of Ukraine is a message I delivered today to Ukraine’s foreign minister and defense minister, who I believe are here tonight — we stand with you, period,” Biden said.
But he also assured the Russian people that they are not the enemy of the US and its allies.
Earlier in the day, Biden met with Ukraine’s foreign and defense ministers before later holding sessions with Duda and Poland’s prime minister — and meeting refugees from nearby Ukraine.
More than 10 million people in Ukraine have been forced from their homes and more than 3.4 million have fled the country, including more than 2 million who have arrived in Poland.
Biden at one point lowered his voice when speaking about the plight of those who have fled.
“Helping these refugees is not something Poland or any other nation should carry alone,” he said.
Biden’s trip, which began with an earlier stop in Brussels, is aimed at strengthening alliances with NATO, the Group of Seven and the European Union and at boosting support for Ukraine. In Brussels, Biden called for Russia to be removed from the Group of 20 ; barring that, he called for Ukraine to be invited to attend the sessions.
Biden also announced a pledge to boost global shipments of liquefied natural gas to Europe, as part of an effort to wean the bloc off Russian energy shipments, while imposing new sanctions on Russian politicians and entities. The US pledged to accept up to 100,000 people fleeing Ukraine, though officials haven’t said said over how long a period.
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