Joe Biden said Vladimir Putin “cannot stay in power” and warned the West to prepare for a “long fight ahead” in an impassioned speech in Poland that invoked Europe’s past struggles against totalitarianism.
The US president initially appeared to call for an end to the Russian president’s regime in what would have meant a dramatic shift in US foreign policy, but the White House quickly retracted his comments, insisting that he was not explicitly calling for Putin’s removal. .
“For God’s sake, this man cannot stay in power,” Biden said in Warsaw, speaking against a backdrop of the walls of Warsaw’s Royal Castle. It came as the western Ukrainian city of Lviv, 400 km away, came under Russian missile attack, which could indicate a new front in the invasion of Moscow.
A White House spokesman later said that Biden had only meant that “Putin cannot be allowed to wield power over his neighbors or the region.”
The Kremlin dismissed the US president’s comment, saying it was “not for Biden to decide.”
Biden, only the second Catholic US president, opened his remarks by invoking the Polish-born Pope John Paul II, a man widely revered in his homeland as a champion against repressive Soviet communism.
Biden said Juan Pablo’s words, “don’t be afraid,” which opened his first public comments upon assuming the papacy, formed a message that Europeans can look to to “overcome the cruelty and brutality” of the war that Putin launched against Ukraine. just over a month ago.
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The president’s speech marked the end of a four-day tour of Europe that began Thursday with an emergency NATO summit in Brussels.
Earlier in the day, Biden met with Polish President Andrzej Duda for a bilateral meeting following talks with two senior Ukrainian defense officials and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
Biden then traveled to a Warsaw stadium that has become a reception center and refuge for many of the Ukrainian immigrants who flocked to the Polish border hoping to avoid Russian forces.
The president seemed visibly shaken by a meeting he had there with a refugee family – a mother and daughter from Mariupol – who told him through a translator that their city was being “wiped off the face of the earth” by troops. of Putin, whom he feared would continue to advance.
The mother, who said her husband and son remain in Ukraine to fight, told Biden that Ukrainian mothers were “ready to strangle” Putin with their bare hands if only they could pinpoint his location.
“I have been to many horrible places like this, many refugee camps in my life, and what always amazes me is the depth and strength of the human spirit,” Biden said.
When asked what he thought about what Putin has done to the people of Ukraine, he replied: “He is a butcher.”
Hours later, outside the Royal Castle, Biden told the crowd that had gathered to hear him that Ukraine and its people are now “on the front lines” of what he described as part of “the perennial struggle for democracy and freedom”. adding that his resistance to the Russian invasion is now part of a larger battle for democracy and freedom against autocracy and repression.
“The rule of law, free and fair elections, the freedom to speak, write and assemble, freedom to worship as one chooses, freedom of the press: these freedoms are essential in a free society. But they have always been under siege,” he said.
After noting that “every generation” has had to fight the “moral enemies of democracy,” he explicitly linked Ukraine’s fight against Russia to earlier uprisings against Soviet-era dominance in Eastern Europe.
“Today’s fighting in Kyiv and Mariupol and Kharkiv is the last battle in a long fight,” he said, comparing them to anti-communist resistance in Hungary in 1956, Poland in 1956 and 1981, and the former Czechoslovakia in 1968.
And while the president noted how those uprisings were crushed under the tracks of Soviet tanks, he emphasized that resistance to communism continued until 1989, when the Berlin Wall “and all the walls of Soviet domination” fell “and the people prevailed.” .
But Biden said the war for democracy has continued as the forces of autocracy have “revived” in the three decades since the end of the Cold War, led by Putin, who said he has plans to “strangle democracy.” in Ukraine. he has done in Russia, under “false claims of ethnic solidarity.”
The president denounced Putin’s “lies” to justify the Ukraine invasion as an expression of how the Russian leader “has the audacity… to believe that might makes right.”
Drawing on America’s past conflicts, Biden then quoted Abraham Lincoln, exhorting Europeans to “have the faith that makes right power.”
“Let us resolve to put into action the strength of the democracies to thwart the plans of the autocracy,” he said, adding that Putin, “a criminal,” has falsely claimed that NATO’s eastward expansion in the decades after the fall of communism has been “an imperial project aimed at destabilizing Russia”.
“Nothing could be further from the truth,” he continued, reiterating NATO’s description of itself as a “defensive alliance” that “has never sought the demise of Russia.”
The president detailed the myriad negotiations and “concrete proposals” offered to Putin in the lead up to his invasion over a period of months, including inputs from Biden himself.
Biden said each good-faith proposal was met with “lies and ultimatums” because Putin “was bent on violence from the beginning” and called Russia’s aggression “nothing less than a direct challenge to the rules-based international order” that it has stood since the end of World War II, threatening to return Europe to the “decades of war” that plagued it before that rules-based order was established.
In addition, he warned Putin against any move against Poland or any of the other former Soviet republics that are now part of NATO: “Don’t even think about moving within a single inch of NATO territory.”
Although Biden praised the unity that NATO nations have enjoyed since Putin launched his invasion of Ukraine, he urged Europeans to “do the hard work of democracy every day” and said he had come to Europe to deliver a “ clear and determined” message to NATO, the G7, the European Union and “all freedom-loving nations”.
That message, he said, is that “they must commit now” to be in the fight for democracy “for the long term.”
“We must stand united today and tomorrow, the day after tomorrow and for years and decades to come. It won’t be easy,” Biden said. “There will be a cost, but it is a price we have to pay. Because the darkness that drives autocracy is ultimately no match for the flame of freedom that lights the souls of free people everywhere.”
Calling the defense of democracy, and the defense of Ukraine against Russia, “the task of our time,” Biden urged Europeans to remember that “the hammer blow that brought down the Berlin Wall” and “the light that lifted the Iron Curtain” were the work of all Europe, of people who fought to free themselves from totalitarianism.
“It was an unmistakable and undeniable force of the people that the Soviet Union could not resist, and we are seeing it once again today in the brave Ukrainian people, who show that their power of money is greater than the will of any dictator. he said.
“A dictator, the man in the reconstruction of an empire will never erase the love of the people for freedom. Brutality will never break his will to be free. Ukraine will never be a victory for Russia,” he said. “For free people who refuse to live in a world of hopelessness and darkness, they will have a different future, a brighter future, rooted in democracy, in the principles of hope and light, of decency and dignity, freedom and possibility.” .
“For God’s sake,” he concluded, “this man cannot stay in power.”