Blinken: Putin's future rests with 'the Russian people'
WASHINGTON — Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Sunday “it’s up to the Russian people” to determine their leader, despite President Joe Biden's assertion in Poland that Vladimir Putin "cannot remain in power."
During a news conference Sunday in Jerusalem where he was meeting with Israeli officials, Blinken sought to clarify comments Biden made Saturday. Whether Putin remains president of Russia is the choice of the country's citizens, Blinken said, rejecting suggestions Biden's comments reflected a new course for administration policy.
“We do not have a strategy of regime change in Russia," Blinken said, "or anywhere else for that matter."
Biden made the comment at the tail end of a 30-minute Saturday speech in front of the Royal Castle, one of Warsaw's notable landmarks that was badly damaged during World War II. The country shares a border with Ukraine, which has remained under vicious assault by Russian forces since Putin ordered an invasion a month ago.
Shortly after Biden's speech, the White House walked back the president’s comment — which was not part of his prepared text condemning Putin. A senior official told reporters: “The President’s point was that Putin cannot be allowed to exercise power over his neighbors or the region. He was not discussing Putin’s power in Russia, or regime change.”
Biden, back in Washington on Sunday, was asked by reporters if he wanted Putin out of office and if he supported regime change in Russia. The president quickly replied "no" before heading to his motocade after attending church services.
The U.S. and NATO allies have sought to clamp down on Putin, rolling out several waves of economic sanctions that have strained Russia’s economy, Blinken said.
“We have a strategy to put unprecedented pressure on Russia, and we’re carrying that forward,” Blinken said. “And we have a strategy to make sure that we’re providing all of the humanitarian support that we can, and we have a strategy to reinforce NATO. All of that is going forward. The President laid that out in great detail yesterday, and that’s what we’re focused on.”
United States Ambassador to NATO Julianne Smith, appearing on CNN’s “State of the Union,” said Biden’s remark was, in part, a response to stories of mistreatment told by Ukrainian refugees during his tour of a Warsaw shelter Saturday.
“In the moment, I think that was a principled human reaction to the stories that he had heard that day, but, no, as you have heard from Secretary Blinken and others, the U.S. does not have a policy of regime change in Russia, full stop,” Smith said.
On “Fox News Sunday,” Smith said: "I think what we all agree on is that President Putin cannot be empowered to wage war. He has attacked Ukraine in a premeditated, unprovoked conflict, and is pursuing this relentless and brutal war in Ukraine, which we all want to see come to an end."
Republican lawmakers on Sunday criticized Biden, saying he should have stuck to his prepared remarks.
“Please Mr. President, stay on script,” said Sen. Jim Risch (R- Idaho), the top-ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Risch, appearing on “State of the Union,” said Biden delivered a “good speech” but the ad-lib at the end could have consequences.
“I think most people who don't deal in the lane of foreign relations don't realize that those nine words that he uttered … would cause the kind of eruption that they did. But any time you say or even, as he did, suggest that the policy was regime change, it's going to cause a huge problem,” Risch said.
Asked about Biden’s remarks, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told Reuters on Saturday: "That's not for Biden to decide. The president of Russia is elected by Russians.”
Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), who also sits on the Foreign Relations Committee, told NBC’s “Meet the Press” that Biden’s “speech was very strong," despite the unscripted portion, but he called on the Biden Administration to provide more military equipment to Ukraine.
“There was a mismatch between the rhetoric and what we're actually doing, and that's the issue,” Portman said of Biden’s speech. “Because there are additional weapons that they're desperately needing that we're not yet providing … we need to do more. We need to do it more quickly.”
Also on "Meet the Press," Ukraine’s Ambassador to the United States, Oksana Markarova, said her country's leaders “heard President Biden loud and clear, that the U.S. will aid and will be with Ukraine in this fight.”
“We clearly understand in Ukraine that anyone who's a war criminal," Markarova continued, "who attacks a neighboring country, who's doing all these atrocities together with all the Russians that are involved definitely cannot stay in power in a civilized world."