US denies it is seeking regime change in Russia after Biden comments

 

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “US denies it is seeking regime change in Russia after Biden comments” was written by Sam Jones, for theguardian.com on Sunday 27th March 2022 12.29 UTC

France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, has warned against using inflammatory language to describe Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, after Joe Biden said Vladimir Putin was a “butcher” who “cannot remain in power”.

Biden’s remarks, made during a speech in Poland on Saturday, were taken by many as a call for regime change in Moscow. His words were swiftly walked back by both the White House and the secretary of state, Antony Blinken, who insisted the US did not have “a strategy of regime change in Russia – or anywhere else”.

Macron said antagonistic language risked exacerbating existing tensions over Ukraine. The French president said he would not have used Biden’s words, adding that he saw his task as “achieving first a ceasefire and then the total withdrawal of [Russian] troops by diplomatic means”.

Macron told broadcaster France 3: “If we want to do that, we can’t escalate in either words or actions.”

In his speech, Biden said Putin was “bent on violence”, adding there was “simply no justification or provocation for Russia’s choice of war” in Ukraine.

He continued: “For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power.”

 

Minutes after Biden spoke, the White House scrabbled to clarify his meaning, saying the president “was not discussing Putin’s power in Russia, or regime change”. According to one official, the speech was not a call to overthrow the Russian president, but rather an attempt to prepare the world’s democracies for an extended conflict.

Blinken was even more emphatic when he addressed the issue during a visit to Jerusalem on Sunday.

“I think the president, the White House, made the point last night that, quite simply, President Putin cannot be empowered to wage war or engage in aggression against Ukraine or anyone else,” he said.

“As you know, and as you have heard us say repeatedly, we do not have a strategy of regime change in Russia – or anywhere else, for that matter.”

The Russian government said Biden appeared to have lost his cool, adding that it was not up to the US president to determine who ruled Russia.

“A state leader should control his temper,” Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told the state news agency Tass. “Personal insults like this narrow the window of opportunity for our bilateral relations under the current [US] administration. It is necessary to be aware of this.”

Biden’s comments have also caused consternation in the US and beyond. Richard Haass, the veteran American diplomat and president of the US Council on Foreign Relations, said his words had been counter-productive and damaging.

“The comments by @potus made a difficult situation more difficult and a dangerous situation more dangerous,” Haass wrote on Twitter. “That is obvious. Less obvious is how to undo the damage, but I suggest his chief aides reach their counterparts & make clear US prepared to deal with this Russian govt.”

Haass added: “As has been said, you can only go to war with the army you have. No less true is you can only end a war with the adversary you have. That Putin’s Russia has acted criminally does not alter this truth. Regime change may be a hope but it cannot constitute the basis of our strategy.”

Tobias Ellwood, the British MP who serves as the chair of the Commons defence select committee, said the comment had been “unwise” and would be seized on by Putin.

“It’s for the Russian people to draw this (obvious) conclusion,” Ellwood wrote on Twitter. “Putin/Xi (& many Russians) will now read ‘regime change’ as POTUS’ wider objective – beyond supporting Ukraine. Putin will spin this, dig in and fight harder.”

The British government said Putin’s future was a matter for the people of Russia.

“The Russian people, I think, are pretty fed up with what is happening in Ukraine, this illegal invasion, the destruction of their own livelihoods, their economy is collapsing around them and I think the Russian people will decide the fate of Putin and his cronies,” the education secretary, Nadhim Zahawi, told Sky News on Sunday morning.

Asked whether Biden had been wrong to say what he had, Zahawi replied: “No, what I’m saying to you is the White House has been very clear on this, the president gave a very powerful speech on this and I think both the United States and the United Kingdom agree that it’s up to the Russian people to decide who should be governing them.”

Biden’s address came as Russia launched symbolic missile strikes on the Ukrainian city of Lviv, 40 miles from the Polish border.

Speaking after Biden’s speech late on Saturday, Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, urged the west to hand over military hardware that was “gathering dust” in stockpiles, saying his country needed just 1% of Nato’s aircraft and 1% of its tanks.

Western nations have so far given Ukraine anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles as well as small arms and protective equipment, but have not offered any heavy armour or planes.

“We’ve already been waiting 31 days,” said Zelenskiy. “Who’s in charge of the Euro-Atlantic community? Is it really still Moscow, because of intimidation?”

Ukraine’s interior ministry said on Sunday that Russia’s targeting of the country’s fuel and food storage centres meant the government would have to disperse stocks of both in the near future, while the head of Ukrainian military intelligence said Russia was trying to split Ukraine in two to create a Moscow-controlled region after failing to take over the whole country.

“In fact, it is an attempt to create North and South Korea in Ukraine,” Kyrylo Budanov said in a statement, adding that Ukraine would soon launch guerrilla warfare in Russian-occupied territory.

Meanwhile, the leader of the Russian-backed, self-proclaimed Luhansk People’s Republic in eastern Ukraine said the region could hold a referendum soon on joining Russia.

“I think that in the near future a referendum will be held on the territory of the republic,” Leonid Pasechnik said. “The people will exercise their ultimate constitutional right and express their opinion on joining the Russian Federation.”

Russia last month recognised Luhansk and Donetsk as independent and ordered what it called a peacekeeping operation in the region shortly afterwards.

Reuters and AFP contributed to this report

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