By Phil Stewart, Brendan O’Brien and Humeyra Pamuk
WASHINGTON (Reuters) -U.S. President Joe Biden clarified on Sunday that the United States does not have a policy of regime change in Russia, after his declaration that Russian President Vladimir Putin “cannot remain in power.”
Biden’s comments in Poland on Saturday also included calling Putin a “butcher” and appeared to be a sharp escalation of the U.S. approach to Moscow over its invasion of Ukraine.
Top American diplomats on Sunday had played down his declaration, and Biden, asked by a reporter as he departed a church service in Washington if he was calling for regime change in Russia, gave a one-word reply: “No.”
Julianne Smith, the U.S. ambassador to NATO, earlier sought to contextualize Biden’s remarks, saying they followed a day of speaking with Ukrainian refugees in Warsaw. Russia’s month-old invasion has driven a quarter of Ukraine’s population of 44 million from their homes.
“In the moment, I think that was a principled human reaction to the stories that he had heard that day,” Smith told CNN’s “State of the Union” program before adding: “The U.S. does not have a policy of regime change in Russia. Full stop.”
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken told a news conference in Jerusalem that Biden was making the point that Putin couldn’t be empowered to wage war. But Blinken said any decision on Russia’s future leadership would be “up to the Russian people.”
Republicans flatly said Biden’s remarks amounted to an unfortunate blunder.
Senator James Risch, the top Republican on the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, called Biden’s remarks a “horrendous gaffe” and said he wished the president would have stayed on script.
“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,” he told CNN.
“It’s going to cause a huge problem,” he said, referring to Biden’s statement in Warsaw: “For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power.”
Senator Rob Portman, who is also on the committee, lamented the public misstep in wartime.
“It plays into the hands of the Russian propagandists and plays into the hands of Vladimir Putin. So it was a mistake,” Portman told NBC’s “Meet the Press” program.
The United States has sought to strike a balance during the conflict in Ukraine to avoid a direct military confrontation with Russia, speeding weapons deliveries to Kyiv to help its military fight but ruling out sending troops into the country or imposing a no-fly zone.
That support has bolstered fiercer-than-expected Ukrainian resistance, and Russia has failed to seize any major Ukrainian city after more than four weeks of fighting.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy urged the West to give Ukraine tanks, planes and missiles to help fend off Russian forces.
The conflict has killed thousands of people, sent nearly 3.8 million abroad and driven more than half of Ukraine’s children from their homes, according to the United Nations.
Moscow says the goals for what Putin calls a “special military operation” include demilitarizing and “denazifying” its neighbor. Ukraine and its Western allies call this a pretext for an unprovoked invasion.
(Reporting by Phil Stewart, Brendan O’Brien, Trevor Hunnicutt, Costas Pitas and Michael Martina; additional reporting by Humeyra Pamuk in JERUSALEM, editing by Diane Craft, Paul Simao and Cynthia Osterman)