US president Joe Biden's comments in Poland today that Russia's leader Vladimir Putin "cannot remain in power" were later qualified by a White House official to be meant to prepare the world's democracies for extended conflict over Ukraine, and not to back regime change in Russia.
Mr Biden’s comments, including a statement earlier in the day calling Putin a “butcher” were a sharp escalation of the US approach to Moscow over its invasion of Ukraine.
In a major address delivered at Warsaw’s Royal Castle, Biden evoked Poland’s four decades behind the Iron Curtain in an effort to build a case that the world’s democracies must urgently confront an autocratic Russia as a threat to global security and freedom.
But a remark at the end of the speech raised the spectre of an escalation by Washington, which has avoided direct military involvement in Ukraine, and has specifically said it does not back regime change.
"For God's sake, this man cannot remain in power," Mr Biden told a crowd in Warsaw after condemning Putin's month-long war in Ukraine. A White House official said Mr Biden's remarks did not represent a shift in Washington's policy.
“The President’s point was that Putin cannot be allowed to exercise power over his neighbours or the region,” the official said. “He was not discussing Putin’s power in Russia, or regime change.”
Asked about Mr Biden’s comment, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told Reuters: “That’s not for Biden to decide. The president of Russia is elected by Russians.”
Mr Biden also called Russia's invasion of Ukraine a "direct challenge" to the post-war order which is threatening to push Europe back to the era of war.
In his landmark address in Warsaw, Mr Biden accused Putin of being “bent on violence from the start”, but said “a dictator bent on rebuilding an empire will never crush a people’s love for liberty”.
Addressing the Russian leader directly, Mr Biden warned that encroaching on Nato territory would be driven back "by the full force of our collective power".
“There is simply no justification or provocation for Russia’s choice of war,” he told a cheering audience. “It is an example of one of the oldest human instincts: using brute force to satisfy a craving for absolute power and control.”
In the speech at the Royal Castle, Mr Biden said: “In this battle, we need to be clear-eyed. This battle will not be won in days, or months either. We need to steel ourselves for the long fight ahead.”
He accused Russian president Vladimir Putin of issuing “obscene” lies in falsely claiming he was working to de-Nazify Ukraine with his invasion.
The US president said: “Today, Russia has strangled democracy and sought to do so elsewhere, not only in his [Putin’s] homeland. Under false claims of ethnic solidarity, he has invalidated neighbouring nations.
“Putin has the gall to say he’s de-Nazifying Ukraine. It’s a lie, it’s just cynical – he knows that.
"And it's also obscene. President Zelensky was democratically elected, he's Jewish, his father's family was wiped out in the Nazi holocaust and Putin has the audacity – like all autocrats before him – to believe that might will make right."
On the second day of his two-day visit to Poland, Mr Biden visited refugees in Warsaw’s national stadium. He recalled seeing a “debilitating sadness” in older people “that this is happening all over again”. He hugged tearful young mothers facing the “toughest question a human can ask: ‘What is going to happen to me?’ ”.
He thanked the Polish people for "opening their hearts and their homes" to Ukrainian refugees during a month-long war which the United Nations says has displaced one in four Ukrainians, including half of the country's children. Of nearly four million people who have fled to other countries, most have passed through Poland and more than half, an estimated 2.5 million, are thought to still be in the country.
After bilateral meetings with Polish and Ukrainian officials, Mr Biden said Vladimir Putin’s war had already proven a strategic failure that had “reduced the rouble to rubble”.
“He thought the Ukrainians would roll over and not fight – not much of a student of history,” he said. “He met his match by brave and stiff resistance.”
Rather than division, he said it had united world democracies and pulled together Nato members like never before. He warned his audience – in Poland, Europe and the western world – that the month-old battle in Ukraine could yet become a long-term fight to drive back autocratic regimes, and it would require sacrifice.
“There will be a cost but it is a price we have to pay,” he said. “The dark that drives autocracy is no match for the flame of liberty that lights the souls of free people everywhere.”
Citing the late Polish pope, John Paul II, and his famous 1979 address in his homeland while it was still under communist rule, he urged Ukrainians to "never ever give up, never doubt, never tire, never become discouraged. Be not afraid."
Mr Biden placed Russia's invasion of Ukraine among a series of Moscow-led attempts during the Cold War to crush its neighbours – in Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Poland. After "strangling" democracy in Russia, he said, Putin was now trying to do it elsewhere. "For God's sake this man cannot remain in power," he said.
Earlier, Mr Biden used a bilateral meeting with Polish president Andrzej Duda at Warsaw's presidential palace to insist that the US views Nato's mutual defence pact, Article 5, as a "sacred obligation ... for your freedom and ours".
Mr Duda restated his thanks for the visit, which has “strengthened immensely” bilateral ties a time of a “great sense of threat” among many Poles.
As Russia's war in Ukraine entered its second month, Mr Biden also met Ukraine's defence and foreign ministers, Oleksii Reznikov and Dmytro Kuleba. The latter told Mr Biden that in the last month of war, he had learned to sleep "under any conditions".
They were joined by US secretary of state Antony Blinken and defence minister Lloyd Austin.
At the larger meeting, US officials said they discussed the military, diplomatic and humanitarian situation in Ukraine. Mr Biden informed the Ukrainian side about talks in Brussels and his determination, along with western partners, to hold Putin to account for his "brutal aggression".
On Saturday, the governor of the Kyiv region reported that Russian forces had entered the city of Slavutych in northern Ukraine and seized a hospital there.
With news of ongoing rocket attacks in the capital and Lviv, western leaders have reacted with scepticism to claims by Moscow that it will refocus its military effort.
A senior Russian defence official said Moscow’s military aim now is to “liberate” the eastern Donbas region where Russian-backed separatists have been fighting a proxy war against Kyiv’s central government since 2014.
Given Russian advances have been stalled or pushed back by a Ukrainian defence more fierce than expected, French president Emmanuel Macron said it was "too soon to say" whether the Russians have changed their approach.
Mr Biden earlier also branded Putin a “butcher” during a meeting with refugees who have fled the war. Russia’s TASS news agency quoted a Kremlin spokesman as saying Mr Biden’s comments on Putin narrowed the prospects for mending ties between the two countries.
He said he wanted to visit Poland to underscore that the assistance it is providing to people is of “enormous consequence”, as Europe experiences the biggest refugee crisis since the second World War.
“It’s not stopping,” Mr Biden said of the devastation in Ukraine. “It’s like something out of a science fiction movie.”
Mr Biden also visited some of the thousands of US troops who have been sent to the area to assist with the humanitarian emergency and to bolster the US military presence on the eastern flank of Nato.
More than 3.5 million Ukrainians have fled the country since the invasion which began on February 24th, with about 2.2 million having gone to Poland, according to the United Nations.
Within a few days, the number of refugees displaced from Ukraine since last month will exceed the number of Syrians forced from their homes over the years of conflict after a 2011 uprising turned into a full-scale war, according to Samantha Power, the administrator of the US Agency for International Development.
Patriot missile batteries
The American military commitment in Poland was apparent as soon as Air Force One touched down, rolling past Patriot missile batteries.
More hardware, including heavy trucks and other equipment painted with dark green and brown camouflage, was present at the airport.
A nearby convention centre serves as a base for the US Army's 82nd Airborne Division.
Mr Duda, through an interpreter, thanked Mr Biden for his support. He said the Poles see the Ukrainians they are receiving as their “guests”.
“This is the name we want to apply to them,” Mr Duda said. “We do not want to call them refugees. They are our guests, our brothers, our neighbours from Ukraine, who today are in a very difficult situation.” – additional reporting PA