The goal did not appear to be a coincidence. Biden was 250 miles away, visiting Ukrainian refugees in the bitter cold of Poland’s National Stadium. He heard pleas from young mothers to pray for the men – husbands, fathers, brothers – left behind.
“We Ukrainian mothers are ready to strangle (Putin) with our own hands,” said a woman whose son has been fighting. Biden put together a little girl in a pink coat and pigtail, and told her he wanted to take her home.
Gathering behind the scenes at the castle, White House officials hastily released a clarification — one of several on this trip alone — to say Biden was not calling for regime change. But not before the Kremlin issued its humiliating response, saying that Russia’s ruler “will not be decided by Mr. Biden.”
The US administration’s downplay of Biden’s remark continued on Sunday as US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said of Israel, “I think the President, the White House, made the point last night that, quite simply, President Putin cannot be empowered to wage or engage in war.” Ukraine or anyone else.”
Biden’s view of Putin has been growing bleak over the past month, according to officials, and his language has intensified in describing a “pure thug,” a “murderous dictator,” a “war criminal,” and, after visiting refugees in the stadium, a “butcher.”
His aides said Biden had hoped to avoid the Cold War and the Washington-versus-Moscow dynamic he believed Putin would like. Instead, he left Europe more directly at odds with the Russian leader than ever before.
Whether this was his intention seems unclear. The clarification issued by the White House was at least the third time on Biden’s trip that a White House official felt obligated to filter out remarks made by the president that, on their own, sounded startling.
After Biden said he would “respond in kind” to Russia’s use of chemical weapons in Ukraine, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan assured reporters that the United States “has no intention of using chemical weapons under any circumstances.”
Biden has a well-established pattern of speaking out of control, although perhaps not as high-stakes. White House officials said before Biden’s speech that the president had been working closely behind the scenes to promote cooperation among his counterparts.
“He sleeps a lot more on these kinds of trips than on other trips because he’s just going, going, like, he wants to talk to the next leader; you know, take the next briefing,” Sullivan said Friday in the middle of Biden’s trip. From Brussels to Rzeszow in southeastern Poland, where he would meet American soldiers.
Biden returns to Washington and achieves some victories at home
Exactly a month after Russia invaded Ukraine, Biden’s surprise visit to Europe was meant to show American determination as the continent faces its worst conflict since World War II. Aides said that after months of phone calls and video conferences from the basement Situation Room in Washington, Biden wanted to come here to meet leaders face to face at a critical juncture in the war.
The timing of the summits was surprising, leaving some European officials skeptical that anything could come of the talks without the usual time to prepare. Some Western officials worried that Biden’s insistence on in-person gatherings was an attempt to force decisions on some of the remaining sticking points.
Others worried that rather than foster unity among allies — which officials say came as a shock to Putin — the visit would instead expose the cracks that remain.
However, they set out to work with their American counterparts to arrange so-called “outputs” — which leaders could then announce to demonstrate that their various constituencies can get things done.
Even as Biden headed to Europe on Wednesday, the talks continued. On Air Force One, the president’s various policy experts streamed in and out of his cabin at the front of the plane, briefing him on progress toward the many items he hoped for.
Biden’s top national security aide described the scene as “a quick date with the president on every subject under the sun” — albeit with greater peril than any other moment in recent memory.
“The answer is no,” Biden said when asked directly if anything that happened in Brussels would lead Putin to change course. Instead, he said, “the most important thing for us is to stay united” for the coming months, which he said will eventually erode Putin’s ability and will to continue.
“We have to show – the reason for asking for the meeting – we have to remain fully, completely and comprehensively united,” he said.
The president is making the West into a long battle
It was the clearest sign yet that Biden and his team, 30 days into the Russian war, do not believe the bloody conflict in Ukraine is about to end.
“This battle will not be won in days or months,” Biden said during his Saturday afternoon speech. “We need to strengthen ourselves for a long battle ahead.”
Even Russia’s claim on Saturday to narrow the scope of its military objectives was met with skepticism from US officials, who said they would instead look at what Putin is doing with his forces in the country before making an assessment.
One of Biden’s goals in visiting Europe was to bring a human dimension into the decision-making process by meeting with refugees and those who help them, along with the American soldiers he has deployed along the eastern edge of NATO to act as a deterrent to Putin.
Biden said he had hoped to see more, and was eager to visit Ukraine itself to bear witness to its suffering. As a senator and vice president, Biden has been a regular visitor to American war zones, a fact he mentioned when he met with troops stationed 60 miles from the border with Ukraine.
“I’ve been in and out of Iraq and Afghanistan about 40 times,” he recalls.
However, Biden aides did not seriously consider slipping across the border into Ukraine. Unlike stops in Iraq or Afghanistan, where US bases and personnel can help secure the airspace, Ukraine is not a US warzone — a fact that looms large over Biden’s journey in logistical and philosophical ways as he works to define the next phase of the conflict.
For Ukrainians watching from their capital Kyiv, this week’s peaks have been frustratingly disappointing. NATO leaders remain firmly opposed to calls for a no-fly zone from President Volodymyr Zelensky, who did not bother to ask again during hypothetical remarks at a NATO summit on Wednesday. Instead, he simply indicated that he had never received a clear answer to his request.
“We are very disappointed and in all honesty. We expect more courage. We expect some bold decisions. The coalition made decisions as if there was no war,” Andrey Yermak, head of the office of the President of Ukraine, said in a live interview. With the Atlantic Council on Friday.
Even Biden’s vow on Wednesday to respond proportionately in the event Putin uses chemical weapons in Ukraine was taken as cold solace by some Ukrainian officials.
“What we have heard is that it is OK to die of bullets, it is OK to die of missiles, and it is OK for my people to die of starvation in occupied cities. But if and when chemical weapons are used, there will be,” said Kira Roddick, a member of the Verkhovna Rada, in Interview by Hala Gorani on CNN, the change was very painful, and this was very upsetting.
“If the whole world is so afraid of Putin, why would Biden say we’d change our mind if there was a chemical attack? Do you understand how harsh that sound?” Roddick asked.
Others in the region – at least those included in the NATO Collective Defense Alliance – felt more confident.
Polish President Andrzej Duda told Biden during their meeting: “We know what Russian imperialism stands for, we know what it means to attack the Russian armed forces, because our great-grandfathers and great-great-grandfathers suffered from it; sometimes our fathers experienced it.” Friday.
So, he said, “Thank you for coming.” “And thank you, first of all, for your wonderful leadership.”
This story has been updated with additional reaction.
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