Anna Voitenko/Ukrinform/NurPhoto via Getty Joe Biden
U.S. officials took to the Sunday morning shows and fanned out across major news outlets to clarify and clean up a remark Joe Biden made last week — insisting that, despite what the president had seemed to suggest, the administration was not backing regime change in Russia.
In a speech delivered in Poland on Saturday, 79-year-old Biden immediately grabbed headlines when he said, “For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power,” referring to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The White House has since downplayed the comment, with one official telling CNN: “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.”
In a a news conference in Jerusalem on Sunday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken reiterated that the U.S. does “not have a strategy of regime change in Russia, or anywhere else for that matter.”
“In this case, as in any case, it’s up to the people of the country in question,” Blinken said. “It’s up to the Russian people.”
Speaking on CNN’s State of the Union on Sunday, U.S. Ambassador to NATO Julianne Smith called Biden’s comments “a principled human reaction” to the mounting devastation in Ukraine, saying, “The U.S. does not have a policy of regime change in Russia. Full stop.”
The Kremlin responded to Biden’s remark by calling it “most alarming” in a statement sent to Reuters, with spokesman Dmitry Peskov saying, “We will continue to track the statements of the U.S. president in the most attentive way.”
RUSSIAN PRESIDENT PRESS SERVICE/HANDOUT/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock Russian President Vladimir Putin
“The president of Russia is elected by Russians,” Peskov said.
Republicans, meanwhile, criticized Biden for the comment because, they said, it risked further complicating the conflict by openly threatening Russia’s government.
Idaho Sen. Jim Risch — who sits on the Foreign Relations Committee — urged Biden to “stay on script,” telling State of the Union: “The administration has done everything they can to stop escalating — there’s not a whole lot more you can do to escalate than to call for a regime change.”
Since Russia invaded Ukraine late last month, the U.S., much of Europe and many other countries have united in denouncing the attack and implementing various restrictions on Russian officials while pledging aid to Ukraine.
However, the U.S. has taken pains to say it would not become directly involved in the conflict, believing that would risk widening the fight to other countries.
Earlier this month, Biden called Putin a “war criminal” when asked about Russia’s invasion, in which hundreds of civilians have been killed or injured, including children, according to admittedly low counts by officials there.
Biden has previously described the Russian autocrat as a “killer” who does “not have a soul.”
More than 3 million Ukrainians have also fled in the fighting, the United Nations says.
The Russian attack on Ukraine is an evolving story, with information changing quickly. Follow PEOPLE’s complete coverage of the war here, including stories from citizens on the ground and ways to help.