WARSAW — President Biden forcefully denounced Vladimir V. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine on Saturday, saying “for the love of God, this man can’t stay in power,” as he framed the war as the final front in a decades-long battle between the forces of democracy and oppression.
Ending a three-day diplomatic trip to Europe with a fiery speech outside a centuries-old castle in Warsaw, Mr Biden described Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as the “all-time test” in a post-war struggle. Second World War between democracy and autocracy, “between freedom and repression, between an order based on rules and another governed by brute force”.
“In this battle, we have to be clear-headed,” Biden told a crowd waving Polish, Ukrainian and American flags. “This battle will not be won in days or months either. We must arm ourselves for the long fight ahead.
Mr Biden used the speech to back a key NATO ally on Ukraine’s western border who served as a conduit for Western weapons and absorbed more than 2 million refugees fleeing violence, more than any other European countries. And he sought to prepare the public, at home and abroad, for a bitter conflict that could last for weeks, months or more.
Just hours before the event, missiles struck the western Ukrainian city of Lviv, about 80 km from the Polish border, extending Russia’s month-long assault on major cities and civilian populations – and undermining Russian statements a day earlier suggesting that Moscow might scale back its wartime targets.
While declaring that “the Russian people are not our enemy”, Mr Biden unleashed an angry tirade against Mr Putin’s claim that the invasion of Ukraine was intended to “denazify” the country. Mr Biden called this rationale a “lie”, noting that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is Jewish and his father’s family was killed in the Holocaust.
“It’s just cynical,” Mr Biden said. ” He knows it. And it’s also obscene.
It was not immediately clear whether Mr Biden’s apparent call for Mr Putin’s ousting was one of the off-the-cuff remarks he is known for or a calculated jab, one of many in the speech. But it risks confirming the central Russian propaganda claim that the West, and especially the United States, is determined to destroy Russia.
The White House immediately sought to downplay the remark. “The president’s point was that Putin cannot be allowed to wield power over his neighbors or over the region,” a White House official told reporters. “He wasn’t talking about Putin’s power in Russia, or about regime change.”
Dmitry S. Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, said Mr Putin’s fate was not in the hands of the US president. “It’s not for Biden to decide,” Mr. Peskov told reporters. “The President of Russia is elected by the Russians.”
Pundits were divided on whether Mr Biden’s remark was meant to signal that he thought Mr Putin should be ousted, a political escalation that could have consequences on the battlefield.
Richard Haass, chairman of the Council on Foreign Relations, said on Twitter that the White House’s attempt to walk back the president’s comment was “unlikely to wash over.”
“Putin will see it as a confirmation of what he has always believed,” he added. he wrote. “Bad lack of discipline which risks extending the scope and duration of the war.”
Mr. Biden’s declaration that Mr. Putin could no longer stay in power could be seen “as a call for regime change”, said Michal Baranowski, senior researcher and director of the Warsaw office of the German Marshall Fund, an organization non-partisan politics. But he said he didn’t read it that way and Mr. Putin was unlikely to either. “I think what President Biden was saying is how can such a terrible person lead Russia?” said Mr. Baranowski. “In this context, I don’t think it will lead to an escalation with Russia.”
Earlier in the day, Mr Biden stood shoulder to shoulder with Polish President Andrzej Duda and assured him that the United States considered its support for NATO a “sacred obligation”.
“America’s ability to fulfill its role in other parts of the world rests on a united Europe,” Biden said.
While Poland’s right-wing and populist government has been embraced by Washington and Brussels as a pillar of Western security, it has caused feuds with the two in the past. Mr Duda, however, thanked Mr Biden for his support, saying Poland stood ready as a “serious partner, a credible partner”.
At a stadium in Warsaw, Mr. Biden met with Ukrainian refugees in his first personal encounter with some of the civilians trapped in a catastrophic humanitarian crisis caused by weeks of indiscriminate Russian bombardment of Ukrainian towns.
After speaking with the refugees, including several from the town of Mariupol, which was leveled by Russian bombardment, Mr. Biden called Mr. Putin a “butcher”.
The comment also prompted a rejoinder from Mr. Peskov, who told TASS, Russia’s state-run news agency, that “such personal insults narrow the window of opportunity” for bilateral relations with the Biden administration.
Mr. Biden also met with Ukrainian ministers in his first face-to-face meeting with the country’s top leaders since the Russian invasion began on Feb. 24, part of what U.S. officials hoped would be a powerful show of leadership. United States commitment to Ukrainian sovereignty. .
“We have received additional promises from the United States on how our defense cooperation will evolve,” Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba told reporters, Reuters news agency reported.
But Mr Biden gave no indication that the United States was willing to reverse its previous rejection of Ukrainian demands to establish a no-fly zone over the country or supply it with the MIG-fighter jets. 29 that Poland had offered a few weeks ago.
As Mr Biden toured Poland, two missiles hit Lviv, shaking residents who rushed to underground shelters as smoke rose into the sky. The mayor of Lviv said a fuel storage facility was on fire and a regional administrator said five people were injured.
Although Russian missiles hit an aircraft repair factory near Lviv on March 18, the city, which had a population of 700,000 before many fled the war, was otherwise spared the airstrikes. and the missile attacks that hit other Ukrainian population centers.
Mr Biden ended his trip a day after a top Russian general suggested that the Kremlin could redefine its objectives in the war by focusing less on seizing major cities and instead targeting the eastern region of Donbass, where the Russian-backed separatists were fighting Ukrainian forces. for eight years.
Mr Biden’s administration was quietly exploring the implications of Russian General Sergei Rudskoi’s statement that Mr Putin may be looking for a way out of the brutal invasion he launched with confidence and bravado a month ago. .
In recent weeks, Western intelligence agencies have resumed talks among senior Russian commanders about abandoning the effort to take Ukraine’s capital Kyiv and other key areas in the north and western part of the country, according to two people with access to the information. Instead, commanders talked more narrowly about securing the Donbass region.
Military analysts have warned that General Rudskoi’s statement could be seen as misdirection as Russian forces regroup for a new offensive.
Just a few weeks ago, Mr Putin threatened to completely absorb Ukraine, warning that “the current leaders must understand that if they continue to do what they are doing, they are risking the future of the Ukrainian state”.
In the latest nuclear saber case, Dmitry A. Medvedev, deputy chairman of Russia’s Security Council, reaffirmed Moscow’s willingness to use nuclear weapons against the United States and Europe if its existence was threatened.
“Nobody wants war, especially since a nuclear war would be a threat to the existence of human civilization,” Medvedev told Russian news agency RIA Novosti in excerpts from an interview. published on Saturday.
Hoping to rally his country and encourage negotiations with Moscow, Mr. Zelensky said that the success of a Ukrainian counter-offensive that began two weeks ago “brought Russian leaders to a simple and logical idea: we must talk”.
For now, large parts of Ukraine remain a battleground in what looks increasingly like a bloody standoff between Ukraine’s small army and Russian troops struggling with logistical problems.
On Saturday, Russian forces entered the small northern town of Slavutych, near the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, where they seized the hospital and briefly detained the mayor, a regional military official said.
In response, dozens of residents unfurled the Ukrainian flag in front of city hall and chanted “Glory to Ukraine”, prompting Russian troops to fire into the air and throw stun grenades, videos show and the manager, Oleksandr Pavliuk.
Michael D. Shear and David E. Sanger reported from Warsaw and Michael Levenson from New York. The report was provided by Megan Specia from Krakow, Poland, Anton Troyanovsky from Istanbul, Valerie Hopkins from Lviv, Ukraine, Eric Schmitt of Washington and Apoorva Mandavilli from New York.