Biden not getting much backup in call for Putin’s ouster

President Biden‘s impassioned demand that Russian President Vladimir Putin step down for starting the war in Ukraine — the climax of an emotional address in Poland over the weekend — is not getting much support so far from the allies Mr. Biden is trying to unify in support of Kyiv.

French President Emmanuel Macron and senior British and Turkish officials all distanced themselves from Mr. Biden‘s remarks, which foreign policy analysts said could complicate the drive to end Russia‘s bloody invasion by making Mr. Putin‘s status an explicit aim of the war.

Two members of the Biden administration, the secretary of state and the U.S. ambassador to NATO, became the latest U.S. officials to try to clarify — and clean up — Mr. Biden‘s apparently ad-libbed remark and insist that Washington is not now insisting on “regime change” in the Kremlin. 

Separately, a poll taken before the speech shows U.S. voters are not impressed by the president’s handling of the crisis in Eastern Europe.

At the end of a speech capping a four-day trip to Europe, Mr. Biden condemned Russia’s month-old attack on Ukraine, called Mr. Putin a “butcher” and said of the Russian leader, “For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power.”

White House officials said that line was not part of the president’s prepared text.

Mr. Macron, who has maintained contact with Mr. Putin even as the fighting rages, said Sunday, “I would not use those terms.”

In an interview with the France 3 broadcasting network, Mr. Macron said now is not the time to ratchet up tensions as Ukraine and its allies push for a halt to the fighting and a diplomatic resolution.

Mr. Macron said he would continue to speak directly with Mr. Putin and is focused on “achieving first a cease-fire and then the total withdrawal of [Russian] troops by diplomatic means. If we want to do that, we can’t escalate either in words or actions.”

While some have praised Mr. Biden for stating the moral stakes in the fight so clearly, British Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi was one of a number of European officials who said that such harsh rhetoric could backfire by pushing Mr. Putin into a corner and that the question of Russia’s leadership is better left for the Russians to work out.

“I think that’s up to the Russian people,” Mr. Zahawi told Sky News. “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.”

Turkey, a NATO member which has offered to mediate the fight between Kyiv and Moscow, also warned that focusing on removing Mr. Putin only complicates the effort to stop the war.

“If everybody burns bridges with Russia, then who is going to talk to them at the end of the day?” Ibrahim Kalin, an adviser to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, told a forum organized by the International Monetary Fund in Doha, according to the Guardian newspaper.

U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said Sunday that, despite the president’s words, Washington has not shifted to demanding Mr. Putin be overthrown.

He said on a visit to Jerusalem after accompanying the president across Europe that the administration has said repeatedly that “we do not have a strategy of regime change in Russia, or anywhere else for that matter.”

“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,” Mr. Blinken told reporters, according to The Associated Press.

U.S. Permanent Representative to NATO Julianne Smith, interviewed on CNN’s “State of the Nation” Sunday, said Mr. Biden had had an emotional response to meeting with Ukrainian refugees fleeing the brutal fighting, but echoed Mr. Blinken’s contention that the president’s words did not amount to a call for regime change.

“In the moment, I think that was a principled human reaction to the stories that he had heard that day, but no, … the U.S. does not have a policy of regime change in Russia,” she said. “Full stop.”

Asked by CNN anchor Dana Bash if that means the White House believes the Russian president should remain in power after the war is over, the ambassador stuck to her message.

“I think what it means is that we are not pursuing a policy of regime change, but I think the full administration, the president included, believes that we cannot empower Putin right now to wage war in Ukraine or pursue these acts of aggression,” said Ms. Smith.

Idaho Sen. James Risch, the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Services Committee, said Mr. Biden’s Saturday address was a solid speech undercut by the president’s final words.

“He gave a good speech … [but] there was a horrendous gaffe right at the end of it,” Mr. Risch told CNN. “I wish he would stay on script. Whoever wrote that speech did a good job for him, but my gosh, I wish they would keep him on script.”

He predicted the off-the-cuff comment could cause a “huge problem” for the administration, potentially locking the U.S. and Russia into positions that only prolong the fighting and make Mr. Putin determined to pursue victory at any cost.

“I think most people who don’t deal in the lane of foreign relations don’t realize those nine words that he uttered would cause the kind of eruption that they did,” Mr. Risch said. “But anytime you say or even as he did suggest that the policy was regime change, it’s going to cause a huge problem.”

Mr. Biden’s remark illustrated the fine line he is walking, reflecting widespread revulsion in the West at Russia’s aggression in Ukraine and at Mr. Putin personally, while needing to keep dozens of allies on the same page and not close off entirely a diplomatic solution. 

Mr. Biden already sparked controversy earlier this month in another apparently unscripted moment in which he declared he believed Mr. Putin was a “war criminal.”

The administration was quick to tamp down suggestions it agreed with Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, after he called on Twitter and in a television interview March 3 for Mr. Putin to be assassinated.

“That is not the position of the United States government and certainly not a statement you’d hear come from the mouth of anybody working in this administration,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters the next day.

Separately, an NBC News poll released Sunday found more than two-thirds of Americans have significant doubts that Mr. Biden is up to the job of managing the Ukraine crisis as his overall approval rating hit a new low.

The poll of 1,000 adults showed that 71% have “just some” or “very little” confidence in Mr. Biden when it comes to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, while 28% said they had “a great deal” or “quite a bit” of confidence in the Democratic president.

The survey was conducted March 18-22, before Mr. Biden left for a week of diplomacy in Brussels and Warsaw and his speech Saturday.

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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