The White House on Sunday more forcefully walked back President Joe Biden’s surprising comments from the previous day in which he appeared to be calling for regime change in Russia. “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,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said at a news conference during a visit to Jerusalem. “As you know, and as you’ve heard us say repeatedly, we do not have a strategy of regime change in Russia or anywhere else, for that matter. In this case, as in any case, it’s up to the people of the country in question. It’s up to the Russian people.”
Blinken’s statement illustrates how top administration officials were left scrambling after Biden’s nine ad-libbed words at the end of a 27-minute speech in Poland on Saturday: “For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power.” Biden was talking about Russian President Vladimir Putin and many immediately interpreted his words as a sign that Washington was seeking regime change in Moscow. The implications would have been huge and would have marked a stark reversal of stated U.S. policy. But administration officials quickly moved to walk back the message. In the end though, the efforts to explain away the president’s words didn’t much matter and the nine words became the central message of the speech.
Biden’s words weren’t planned and appear to have surprised even his closest aides. Officials later acknowledged “it was just the latest example of Biden’s penchant for stumbling off message,” reports the Washington Post. “And like many of his unintended comments, they came at the end of his speech as he ad-libbed and veered from the carefully crafted text on the teleprompter.” The words amounted to “a badly needed gift to Moscow,” notes the Guardian, as there is little doubt Biden’s statement will now be featured in Russia’s propaganda. Moscow will also be able to argue that any negotiation with Washington is futile.