Experts have warned that a nine-word blunder from US President Joe Biden could confirm one of Vladimir Putin’s worst fears – and spell dire consequences for Ukraine.
In a forceful and highly personal condemnation of his Russian counterpart on Saturday night, US President Joe Biden declared that Vladimir Putin, now a month into his brutal invasion of Ukraine, “cannot remain in power”.
The reportedly unscripted remark, made at the end of a speech in Warsaw that served as the capstone on a four-day trip to Europe, prompted dozens of people to quickly label Mr Biden a “hero” on social media, commending him for his “strong leadership”.
Experts, however, have warned the gaffe could confirm what Mr Putin “has believed all along” — that America is in favour of deposing him as Russian President and therefore may have crossed one of his murky, nuclear red lines.
“There ought to be two priorities right now: Ending the war on terms Ukraine can accept, and discouraging any escalation by Putin. And this comment was inconsistent with both of those goals,” veteran diplomat and Council on Foreign Relations president, Richard Haas, told The Washington Post.
“It discourages Putin from any compromise essentially — if you’ve got everything to lose, it frees him up. Why should he show any restraint? And it confirms his worst fears, which is that this is what the United States seeks. His ouster and systemic change.”
Within minutes, the White House was walking back the comments, insisting before the President could even board Air Force One to fly back to Washington that he wasn’t calling for an immediate change in government in Moscow.
One official asserted that Mr Biden was “not discussing Putin’s power in Russia or (a) regime change”; instead, his point was that “Putin cannot be allowed to exercise power over his neighbours or the region”.
But as Mr Haas told The Post, the damage had already been done.
“What’s frustrating about this is, up to now, the Biden administration has conducted itself with significant discipline … This goes against the grain of their handling of this crisis,” he said.
“They obviously recognise that, they walked it back in a matter of minutes. The problem is, from Putin’s point of view the President revealed his and our true intentions.”
Mr Putin established the threat of nuclear war from the very beginning of his bloody invasion into Ukraine.
“No matter who tries to stand in our way or all the more so create threats for our country and our people, they must know that Russia will respond immediately,” he said in a televised address, announcing his nation’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24.
“And the consequences will be such as you have never seen in your entire history.”
In the month since, while the prospect of a nuclear war “remains low”, the risk has grown, research analyst at the US Centres for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, Monica Montgomery, told Vanity Fair on Thursday.
Russian military officials are reportedly snubbing calls from the US, raising the risk of miscalculating into a nuclear crisis. Mr Putin has become increasingly isolated, boosting concerns about what he could do should he feel backed into a corner.
And last week, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov warned during an interview with CNN that Russia could resort to nuclear weapons in response to what it deems an “existential threat” — an ill-defined red line that officials in the US and the West are attempting to avoid stumbling over.
Direct military confrontation is the action “most likely” to raise the stakes of nuclear escalation, but a move like Mr Biden’s — something like what Ms Montgomery described as “blundering into a conflict with NATO” — has been experts’ biggest concern.
“Even those who think Biden has exhibited sterling leadership during this crisis should admit that the president’s remarks were an unforced error,” The Atlantic’s Tom Nichols wrote off the back of the President’s blunder.
“Putin has already made himself a pariah in the West, and though Biden has been right to call Putin a thug, a butcher, and a war criminal, it is another thing entirely to use language that could be misconstrued by both the American public and the Kremlin as a suggestion that the United States is interested in changing the Russian regime.”
The Kremlin was quick to weigh in on Mr Biden’s remarks, with Mr Peskov telling state news agencies that a change of power was “not for Biden to decide”. “The President of Russia is elected by Russians,” he said.
Veteran diplomat and senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Aaron David Miller, told The Washington Post that Russia’s response proved that, had the White House not immediately clarified Mr Biden’s words, it could have led to a significant shift in policy.
It also could have signalled to Mr Putin — who has “obsessively” watched the video of Libyan tyrant Muammar Gaddafi’s brutal execution and has an “unshakeable fear” a similar fate could befall him if he were forced out of power — that the US would attempt to drive him out of office.
“The speech was quite remarkable. This is one of those speeches where the one-liner in many ways drowns out the intent of the speech. Because that’s exactly what people are focusing on,” Mr Miller said, adding that the full impact of the comment may be realised in the coming days.
“I’m risk averse by nature, especially with a guy who has nuclear weapons. But will it have operational consequences? I don’t know.”