Vladimir Putin “cannot remain in power”, US president Joe Biden said in Warsaw on Saturday in a speech addressing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
However, a White House official said soon after the speech that Biden was not calling for regime change in Russia.
Russia had been quick to respond to Biden’s initial comment, with Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov saying: “This [Putin remaining in power] is not to be decided by Mr Biden. It should only be a choice of the people of the Russian Federation.”
Earlier in the speech, Biden had said the world must prepare for a “long fight ahead”, as he painted the war as part of a generation-spanning defence of universal democratic principles against a Russian order “governed by brute force”.
“We emerged anew in the great battle for freedom,” the American leader said at his speech at the Polish presidential palace.
“The battle between democracy and autocracy. Between liberty and repression. Between a rules-based order and one governed by brute force.
“This battle will not be won in days or months,. We need to steel ourselves for a long fight ahead.”
Just before Biden started his speech, Russian cruise missiles hit targets in the city of Lviv near Ukraine’s western border, about 400km (250 miles) from where the US president was speaking.
Referencing Pope John Paul II’s “be not afraid” speech of 1979 at the beginning and end, Biden’s speech linked the war in Ukraine with historic moments of eastern European defiance against Soviet aggression.
“The battle for democracy did not conclude with the fall of the Berlin Wall,” Biden said. “Today Russia has strangled democracy and sought to do so elsewhere, not just in its homeland.”
He explicitly warned Russia of extending its war into Nato territory. “Don’t even think about moving one inch on to Nato territory,” Biden said. “The west is now more united than it has ever been.”
Earlier in the day, Biden had emphasised the “sacred” tie of the Nato military alliance that binds several nations neighbouring Ukraine to the US.
“We take article 5 as a sacred commitment,” the president told his Polish counterpart, Andrzej Duda, in Warsaw on Saturday.
“Not a throwaway. A sacred commitment that relates to every member of Nato.”
“I’m confident that Vladimir Putin was counting on being able to divide NATO, to separate the eastern flank from the west, to separate nations based on past histories. But he hasn’t been able to do it. We’ve all stayed together. And it is so important that we keep in lockstep,” Biden said.
Biden’s motorcade had arrived at the presidential palace in Warsaw at about 12:30am, after a short ride down a street lined with Polish and Ukrainian flags. Members of the Polish forces representing different branches of the military awaited the American leader in ceremonial uniforms.
About an hour earlier Biden, his foreign secretary, Antony Blinken, and defence secretary Lloyd Austin had held a brief meeting with Ukrainian counterparts including foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba and defence chief Oleksii Reznikov at the Marriott hotel in central Warsaw.
At Stadion Narodowy, a football stadium converted into a refugee centre, Biden also met a number of people who have fled across the border into Poland to escape the bloodshed in Ukraine, as well as volunteers working to providing them with meals.
Asked by reporters what seeing Ukrainian refugees at Stadion Narodowy made him think of as he deals with Vladimir Putin, Biden responded: “He’s a butcher.”
3.5 million Ukrainians have fled their country since the start of the war, of which an estimated 2.2 million have found shelter in Poland, whose conservative government’s welcoming stance has contrasted starkly to its reluctance to take in those fleeing the war in Syria six years ago.
“We do not want to call them refugees,” said Polish president Duda, of the national-conservative Law and Justice party, on Saturday. “They are our guests, our brothers, our neighbours from Ukraine, who today are in a very difficult situation.”
On Friday, Biden had flown into the Polish town of Rzeszów, about an hour’s drive from the Ukrainian border, where he got a first-hand look at international efforts to help more than 2 million Ukrainian refugees who have found temporary shelter in Poland from the war in their country, and met US troops bolstering Nato’s eastern flank.
Over the past several months the US has bolstered European allies with the temporary deployment of thousands of additional troops to Poland, Germany and Romania. After some strains in its relationships with the US and the EU in recent years, Poland – which already hosted numerous US and Nato military bases and is a cornerstone of Nato’s eastern front – is enjoying a centre-stage position.
The US and Poland have sometimes disagreed about the best way to support Ukraine. Earlier this month the US rejected a Polish proposal to send Soviet-era MiG fighter planes to Ukraine via US bases, which the White House viewed as too potentially escalatory.
Similarly, when Jarosław Kaczyński – a Polish politician considered even more influential than President Duda – recently suggested that Nato deploy a peacekeeping force to Ukraine, Washington quickly and quietly swept the idea off the table.