Biden delivered a lengthy speech in Warsaw last week, but the only thing most people will know about it or remember from it was the ad-libbed line at the very end when he declared, "For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power." It seemed like an obvious demand for regime change in Moscow, and it was widely interpreted that way. Ever since, the Biden administration has been scrambling to deny that the president meant what he said, and this week he followed up by insisting that his public statement at the end of a wide-ranging policy speech had no policy implications. US Russia policy certainly shouldn’t be one of regime change, but that is why Biden’s careless rhetoric was so unwelcome and harmful.
Biden made it sound as if he was setting Putin’s downfall as the condition for sanctions relief. That would not only complicate diplomacy to end the war, but it could also convince the Russian leadership that they have no reason to compromise. In the worst-case scenario, it could cause the Russian leadership to believe that it is fighting for its survival and encourage Putin and his allies to act more recklessly. At best, it risks rupturing diplomatic ties with Russia at a time when keeping a channel with Moscow open is very important to avoid further misunderstanding and escalation. Biden’s remark also gave unwanted encouragement to hardliners in our own country that absolutely do want to pursue insane maximalist goals that include regime change.
Given the extensive record of US regime change policies during and after the Cold War, US officials must be particularly careful to avoid saying and doing things that suggest that regime change is the real goal of US policy. We know that Putin is obsessed with the US-backed overthrow of Gaddafi in 2011, so he is likely to react very badly to any hints that the US seeks to do the same thing to him. It is much more dangerous to suggest that regime change is the goal of policy towards Russia than it was in Libya or Syria when Russia possesses nuclear weapons and Russian officials have stated many times that it is prepared to use them if the state’s existence is threatened. Authoritarian leaders will tend to identify their own survival with that of the state they lead, so threatening one can easily be mistaken for threatening the other as well.
It is worth noting that Biden’s policies have likely made Putin’s hold on power more secure. Economic warfare against Russia is doing considerable harm to the people of Russia, and in every case where broad sanctions have been employed the targeted government becomes more entrenched, its domestic opposition becomes weaker, and the country as a whole becomes less free. Putting an entire country under siege through economic isolation can make tens of millions of people poorer, but it has never made anyone freer. The longer that broad sanctions remain in place, the more likely it is that Putin will stay right where he is. Sanctions advocates claim that broad sanctions are meant to punish the leaders and their allies, but in practice these policies help to grind down ordinary people and keep the leaders in power.
Biden later defended his remark by saying that he was expressing moral outrage and nothing more, but even if that were true it was a mistake for him to have said it in a high-profile speech in eastern Europe. Calls for regime change are always expressed in the language of moral condemnation as a way of selling the public on the dangerous idea that the US should arrogantly decide which leaders can stay in power and which ones "must go." An expression of "moral outrage" by the president is indistinguishable for all intents and purposes from setting regime change as an official policy, and that is why the president should not make statements like this if he doesn’t want his remarks interpreted that way.
This was Biden’s "Assad must go" declaration: a statement he didn’t need to make, shouldn’t have made, and couldn’t act on without taking unacceptable risks. When Obama made that declaration in the wake of regime change in Libya, he assumed that it was just a matter of time before Assad lost and was driven from power. More than a decade later, Assad hasn’t gone anywhere, Syria is in ruins, and the US further punishes the people of Syria with broad sanctions out of frustration with the failure of its attempted regime change. The US should not make the same mistake again on a much larger scale with Russia.
Denouncing a foreign leader as illegitimate may feel satisfying, but it makes it much harder to strike necessary diplomatic bargains with the person that you have just said cannot remain in his position. Barring an improbable coup, the reality is that Putin will likely remain in power for many more years, and it will be necessary to talk to him to bring an end to the war in Ukraine and the economic war against Russia. Ending the war as soon as possible should be an urgent priority, and if that means setting aside feelings of outrage to find a compromise that allows for the restoration of peace then that is what needs to happen.
Daniel Larison is a contributing editor and weekly columnist for Antiwar.com and maintains his own site at Eunomia. He is former senior editor at The American Conservative. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.