President Joe Biden on Saturday called his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin a “butcher” who “cannot remain in power” after meeting top Ukrainian ministers for the first time since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Within minutes of his comments during a visit to Warsaw, a White House official played down the remarks saying Biden “was not discussing Putin’s power in Russia, or regime change”.
“The president’s point was that Putin cannot be allowed to exercise power over his neighbours or the region,” the official said.
Biden compared Ukraine’s resistance against Russia to the anti-Soviet “battle for freedom” and said the world must prepare for a “long fight ahead”.
“We stand with you,” he told Ukrainians in a sweeping speech at the Royal Castle in Warsaw, which he began with the words of late Polish pope John Paul II: “Be not afraid.”
He said Russia had suffered a “strategic failure” in Ukraine and told ordinary Russians they were “not our enemy”, urging them to blame Putin for the heavy sanctions imposed by the West.
He also warned Russia not to move on an “inch” of NATO territory, reiterating the “sacred obligation” of collective defence for alliance members.
“We will have a different future, a brighter future rooted in democracy and principle, hope and light.
“For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power,” he said, concluding his address.
– Russian missile fragment –
Biden earlier on Saturday met with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba and Defence Minister Oleksii Reznikov, who made a rare trip out of Ukraine in a possible sign of growing confidence in the fightback against Russian forces.
The meeting took place at the Marriott Hotel in the city centre — opposite a Warsaw train station where there has been a constant flow of Ukrainian refugees since the conflict started.
Biden sat at a long white table between US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin, facing Kuleba and Reznikov, an AFP reporter saw.
There were Ukrainian and US flags in the background.
Kuleba gave Biden the fragment of a Russian missile that struck a base in Yavoriv near the western Ukrainian city of Lviv close to the Polish border.
“The invincible character of Ukrainians and Western ones, especially US ones, are the recipe for our victory,” Kuleba said after the meeting.
Kuleba said he had discussed new sanctions that could be imposed against Russia and how to ensure the current ones are properly implemented.
Blinken and Austin “pledged continued support to meet Ukraine’s humanitarian, security, and economic needs”, State Department spokesperson Ned Price said.
Biden last met Kuleba in Washington on February 22 — two days before Russia launched its assault.
Since then, Kuleba has also met Blinken in Poland, next to the border with Ukraine on March 5.
– ‘He’s a butcher’ –
The US leader later visited a refugee centre at the National Stadium in Warsaw where he met several refugees, including some from the city of Mariupol which has suffered the worst of Russia’s assault.
Asked by reporters what he thought of Putin’s actions, Biden responded simply: “He’s a butcher.”
“I remember what it’s like when you have someone in a war zone and every morning you get up and you wonder, you are just wondering, you are praying you don’t get that phone call,” said Biden, whose son Beau served in Iraq before dying of a brain tumour.
He also said he was “not sure” that Russia had changed its strategy in Ukraine after assertions by Russian officials that they were altering their war aims to concentrate on the eastern Donbas region.
During his visit, Biden also told Polish President Andrzej Duda that NATO’s collective defence was a “sacred commitment” for the US, adding: “You can count on that… For your freedom and ours.”
Duda told him that Poles felt a “great sense of threat” from the conflict in neighbouring Ukraine.