As desirable as Vladimir Putin’s downfall might be, the West should first concentrate on its attempts to ensure that Moscow loses the war in Ukraine.
Joe Biden has a unique ability to undo his hard work with off-the-cuff comments. The world can be glad that the Democratic president is in the White House during the Ukraine crisis and not Donald Trump, who considers Vladimir Putin a genius and was only prevented from withdrawing the U.S. from NATO with great effort. In the past few weeks, Biden impressively united the Western defensive alliance and helped iron out the mistakes made in Berlin in recent years. It was Angela Merkel who increased a dangerous dependence on Russian gas. And the German chancellor herself deterred U.S. President Barack Obama from delivering weapons to the embattled Ukrainian people.
Biden made a wise decision to travel to Poland in the midst of a war and deliver a speech not only about Ukraine but the things the West stands for: the rule of law, free speech, democracy and rule-based international cooperation. Biden’s speech was the kind you would hope for from a U.S. president; it was emotional, full of historic references and yet, to the point. If only he had not made this fateful remark at the end: “For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power.”
It was a statement that one could only understand as a call for regime change in Moscow. The departure of dictators is always desirable, particularly one who has as much blood on his hands as Putin. But Biden is not speaking as a private citizen. If he was serious, it raises a number of complex questions. Can the U.S. continue to conduct negotiations with a man who should be ousted from power? Is the U.S. actively supporting a change of government in Moscow? How can you ensure that Putin’s successor won’t prevent you from jumping from the frying pan into the fire? Or even worse, is Russia, a nuclear power, descending into chaos? And from Putin’s perspective, isn’t he more compelled than ever before to win this war by every possible means, because if he fails, he could face the same fate as Saddam Hussein and Moammar Gadhafi?
Biden should have considered all these questions before making such a sweeping statement. But evidently, Biden’s remark was spontaneous, one of those verbal slip-ups that he has been known for over the decades and that have gotten him into trouble more than once. But in this case, we’re not talking about a misjudged campaign slogan, but war and peace.
Biden Has Made Many Right Decisions
Biden’s staff walked back the president’s remark a few minutes after he spoke. They said the president was not calling for a regime change, but wanted to make it clear that Russia does not have the right to subjugate its neighbors. Yet the remark is out there now, and open to any possible interpretation. Was it part of a clever bluff? Or a further indication that the 79-year-old president lacks the final ounce of concentration he needs in what is likely the most difficult leadership position in the world?
In the past few weeks, Biden has made the right decision on many occasions. But his policies have been oddly contradictory in one respect. On the one hand, Biden himself continually warned about the danger of a third world war if there is a direct confrontation between NATO troops and the Russian military. Many Republicans rightly criticized this approach saying it caused further escalation, which only benefits Putin.
On the other hand, Biden continued to ratchet up his personal attacks against the Kremlin leader. First he called him a “war criminal,” then a “butcher,” and now he is calling for regime change. If Putin were brought before a court and faced with spending the rest of his life in prison, Biden’s approach would, of course, have been welcome. But the U.S. president and the West would do well to first concentrate on helping defeat Putin in Ukraine. Once his troops have been beaten, there will still be time to contemplate the Kremlin ruler’s fate.