With the war in Ukraine at a critical juncture, President Biden on Saturday used the capital of a country once dominated by the Soviet Union to demand an end to Russian President Vladimir Putin‘s vast power and to exhort U.S. allies to stand up to Russia’s brutal invasion of its neighbor.
“The test of this moment is a test of all time,” Biden said in what was designed as a rousing speech for unity uttered at a Warsaw castle destroyed by Nazis in World War II — and later rebuilt.
“For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power,” Biden said of Putin — a dramatic final flourish to what the White House termed a major speech and what appeared to be a call to unseat the man he has branded a killer and a war criminal.
The White House later clarified that Biden was not urging regime change, which would have been a major shift in U.S. policy. “The president’s point was that Putin cannot be allowed to exercise power over his neighbors or the region,” a spokesman told reporters traveling with the president and speaking on condition of anonymity in keeping with White House protocol. “He was not discussing Putin’s power in Russia, or regime change.”
Still, the comments reverberated in Poland, in Ukraine, where a Russian air attack struck within miles of the Polish border, and in Russia.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said it was not up to Biden to choose who leads Russia. “The president of Russia is elected by Russians,” he said, according to Reuters.
Biden, in his speech, also reached out to the Russian people, saying the United States and the West do not have grievances with them but with their leaders. And he called for worldwide unity, something the administration has not been able to galvanize, with numerous countries sitting on the sidelines of the conflict.
“All of us, including here in Poland, must do the hard work of democracy each and every day,” Biden said. “My country as well.”
He opened his remarks by invoking the late Pope John Paul II, a Pole, whose “Be not afraid” speech in Warsaw in 1979 inspired Poland to eventually break away from Communist rule.
Throughout his visit to Europe, Biden has emphasized the “sacred obligation” the U.S. and its NATO allies have to protect Poland and other member states if Russia spreads its attacks into the eastern flanks of NATO territory. He told Polish President Andrzej Duda in a meeting that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization will defend “every inch” of its territory “for your freedom and ours.”
As Biden visited Warsaw, a fresh volley of explosions was heard on the outskirts of Lviv, in western Ukraine and just miles from the border with Poland. Black smoke billowed on the horizon. Ukrainian authorities said a Russian missile attack hit a fuel storage facility. Though the third attack in the vicinity of once-quiet Lviv, it was the first one close to the city’s population.
Russia on Friday announced that the “first phase” of its military assault had ended successfully, saying its forces would now concentrate on its main goal: consolidating control of occupied parts of eastern Ukraine. This might represent a scaling down of operations in the face of a failure to advance on key cities — or it may be another feint by Putin to confuse his adversaries.
Saturday’s Lviv attacks seemed to suggest the latter. Biden, asked what he thought of Putin’s shift in strategy, said he was not sure there had been any shift.
Initially, several U.S. officials embraced the analysis that Putin was scaling back because it fits with their narrative that Ukraine is prevailing in the conflict, even as Washington and European capitals are willing to send supplies and weapons to Ukraine but not troops or fighter jets.
While in Warsaw, Biden also got a firsthand glimpse of the war’s toll on Poland. Meeting with Ukrainian refugees near the train station in Warsaw, he said he admired their spirit and resilience and when asked how it affected him, he branded Putin a “butcher.”
“He is a butcher,” Biden said. “That’s what it makes me feel.”
Millions of Ukrainians have fled across Europe or been displaced inside their country since Putin launched the invasion Feb. 24.
Earlier, Biden joined U.S. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III at a session in a Warsaw hotel with top Ukrainian officials — Dmytro Kuleba, Ukraine’s foreign minister, and Oleksii Reznikov, the country’s defense minister.
Poland, a NATO ally of the United States, shares a lengthy border with Ukraine and has been both the major destination of Ukrainian refugees and an essential corridor for aid — including military assistance — headed into Ukraine.
There is deep anxiety in Poland, where the Warsaw Pact was signed during Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, that the war could spread into its territory.
But Washington, wary of a wider war with Russia, has not embraced Polish suggestions that an international peacekeeping force be deployed to Ukraine. And the Biden administration has also rejected outright a Polish proposal that Polish MIG-29 fighter jets be transferred to Ukraine via a U.S. airbase in Germany.
Poland has also urged that Washington expedite procedures to accept refugees from Ukraine with families in the United States. The Biden administration now says it will open doors to 100,000 Ukrainian refugees.
Biden and Duda and their delegations met for several hours, discussing the war and the refugee crisis, which has seen some 3.7 million Ukrainians flee the country, an exodus that continues daily and is considered the largest refugee influx in Europe since World War II.
The trip to the Polish capital came a day after Biden visited U.S. forces in the eastern Polish city of Rzeszow, some 45 miles west of the Ukrainian border. Washington has bolstered its forces in Eastern Europe in response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
In his comments to troops, Biden talked of a global struggle between democracies and autocratic forces.
“You’re in the midst of a fight between democracies and oligarchs,” the president told members of the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division. “Is democracy going to prevail and the values we share, or are autocracies going to prevail?”
During a later briefing on the refugee response, Biden said, “the single most important thing that we can do from the outset” to force Putin to stop the war “is keep the democracies united in our opposition.”
Before going to Poland, Biden conferred with U.S. allies in Brussels, unveiling new sanctions against Russian officials, among other moves.
The president’s arrival in Poland comes at a crucial juncture in the Ukrainian conflict. Now in its second month, the war has evolved into a grinding and costly battle in which opposing forces on many fronts appear deadlocked — and, in some cases, Ukrainian troops are pushing back their Russian adversaries.
Questions remain about whether Russia will now ramp up its offensive throughout Ukraine or will concentrate its efforts on the east and south, where Russia has had some military success.
In comments Friday, Sergei Rudskoi, a top Russian Defense Ministry official, said that with the “first stage” completed, Moscow will concentrate on the “liberation” of the Donbas, a large stretch of eastern Ukraine where Russia-backed separatists have expanded control since the war began. Russian proxies in the Donbas have been battling Ukrainian forces since 2014.
“The combat potential of the armed forces of Ukraine has been significantly reduced,” Rudskoi said.
That assertion came as a Russian assault on the capital, Kyiv, appears to have stalled amid fierce Ukrainian resistance.
But Russia depicted the attack on Kyiv not as an attempt to take the capital, but an effort to tie down Ukrainian forces while Russia concentrates on the east.
Western observers see the comments as a face-saving maneuver for Moscow as its forces have bogged down in the field because of military missteps and greater-than-expected Ukrainian resistance. However, many also caution that Putin has repeatedly lied about his intentions and operations, and the new comments must be viewed with skepticism.
Putin has denied from the outset that Russia had aims to occupy Ukrainian territory, saying strikes were meant to cripple Ukrainian military infrastructure. But his government’s assault on Ukrainian cities — including Kyiv and the eastern city of Mariupol, scene of vast devastation — seemed to undercut Putin’s assertions.
Putin has called the war a “special operation” meant both to bolster Russian security against NATO encroachment and to protect Russian speakers in the east subjected to “abuse and genocide.” The Ukrainian government denies any systemic abuse of Russian speakers in the east or elsewhere in Ukraine.
In recent days, Russian shelling has continued in various areas, including the outskirts of Kyiv and the northern cities of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second most populous, and Chernihiv.
Authorities in Kyiv have announced a new 35-hour curfew.
Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko said the curfew will run from 8 p.m. Saturday to 7 a.m. Monday, with residents allowed to leave their homes only to get to bomb shelters.
Meanwhile, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky again called on other nations to step up humanitarian and military aid to his beleaguered nation.
“They are destroying our ports,” Zelensky said in a video address Saturday to Qatar’s Doha Forum, noting that the war had curtailed grain and other exports from Ukraine. “The absence of exports from Ukraine will deal a blow to countries worldwide.”
McDonnell reported from Lviv and Wilkinson from Washington.
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