The Biden administration‘s top diplomat in NATO on Sunday became the latest U.S. official to walk back the president’s unscripted declaration that Russian President Vladimir Putin “cannot remain in power” following his decision to invade neighboring Ukraine last month.
U.S. Permanent Representative to NATO Julianne Smith said that President Biden had a “principled human reaction” to meeting with Ukrainian refugees fleeing the brutal fighting, but reiterated Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s insistence that the president’s words did not amount to a call for regime change.
“Well, look, the president had spent the day visiting with Ukrainian refugees. He went to the national stadium in Warsaw and literally met with hundreds of Ukrainians. He heard their heroic stories as they were fleeing Ukraine in the wake of Russia’s brutal war in Ukraine,” Ms. Smith told CNN’s “State of the Union.”
“In the moment, I think that was a principled human reaction to the stories that he had heard that day, but no, … the U.S. does not have a policy of regime change in Russia,” she said. “Full stop.”
Mr. Biden touched off a global uproar at the end of his four-day European trip with his Saturday speech in Warsaw, Poland.
“For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power,” Mr. Biden said at the conclusion of his remarks.
The line became the focus of what was otherwise praised as a strong, sweeping speech in support of Ukraine as it fights the Russian military invasion. The Kremlin quickly criticized Mr. Biden’s remark Saturday evening, and even some European leaders expressed doubt about the wisdom of pushing Mr. Putin into a corner as diplomats try to negotiate a cease-fire.
Asked by CNN anchor Dana Bash if that means the White House believes the Russian president should remain in power, Ms. Smith stuck to her message.
“I think what it means is that we are not pursuing a policy of regime change, but I think the full administration, the president included, believes that we cannot empower Putin right now to wage war in Ukraine or pursue these acts of aggression,” Ms. Smith said.
She added that the president’s trip “has been remarkable, it’s been historic.”
“I thought the speech was completely pitch perfect, and I think this will set us on a good course for continuing to support the allies, support Ukrainians, and apply pressure on Russia to get them to stop this war,” she said.