President Joe Biden’s speech in Warsaw on Saturday movingly framed Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine as a battle “between liberty and repression, between a rules-based order and one governed by brute force.” Then Biden ad-libbed, putting an unexpected, provocative capstone on what was otherwise a meticulously crafted message of resolve in the face of tyranny.
“For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power,” the president said of Putin.
It was an unscripted gaffe, the kind Biden has been known to make when he veers from the text aides give him. The White House quickly tried to put the fire out. No, Biden wasn’t calling for regime change and Putin’s ouster as Russia’s president, Biden administration officials insisted. “The president’s point was that Putin cannot be allowed to exercise power over his neighbors or the region,” a White House official told reporters.
The administration’s attempts to downplay the president’s remark weren’t convincing at all. Certainly, Biden wasn’t calling for the West to begin devising ways to remove Putin from power. But he was encapsulating what many Americans and others in the West have been thinking while Putin’s tanks and missiles continue to slaughter innocent Ukrainians — the world isn’t safe as long as Putin rules Russia.
It won’t be enough, however, for Westerners to reach that conclusion. And in any case, it’s not a matter for the West to decide.
It’s the Russian population that, at some point, must come to grips with that reality. Biden made it clear in his speech that he understands that. “Now, Vladimir Putin’s aggression have cut you, the Russian people, off from the rest of the world, and it’s taking Russia back to the 19th century,” the president said. “This is not who you are. This is not the future … you deserve for your families and your children. I’m telling you the truth. This war is not worthy of you, the Russian people.”
Russians cannot be happy with the fallout that Putin’s brutality in Ukraine has created for them. The ruble has bounced back somewhat, but it still buys a lot less than it did before. The country’s economy, far from a juggernaut even before the invasion, has doubled over from the impact of withering sanctions imposed by the U.S. and Europe. The Russian stock market reopened last week after a monthlong shutdown, but trading is heavily restricted. The White House called it a “Potemkin market opening.”
Thousands of Russians who took to the streets to protest the war have been jailed. At least 200,000 Russians have had enough of their dictator and have left the country, a brain drain that only adds to Russia’s long-standing struggle with population losses. Russian citizens able to access media coverage of the war that isn’t Kremlin-controlled have witnessed Putin’s barbaric destruction of whole Ukrainian cities, his bombing of maternity hospitals and schools and his forced deportation of thousands of Ukrainians from the besieged city of Mariupol to makeshift camps in Russia.
As long as Putin continues this campaign of mass killing, it’s only going to get worse for Russians. The Biden administration hopes that Europe now sees the folly of its overdependence on Putin for energy and will begin to wean itself off of Russian natural gas and oil — which serves as the lifeblood of the country’s economy. Diplomatically and economically, Russia faces a future of isolation. In 1991, Russians celebrated escaping from the bleak times of stifling Soviet rule. Under Putin, Russians face a return to bleak times.
There was a time when Russians adored Putin. They credited him with pulling the country out of the doldrums of the 1990s, when Boris Yeltsin tanked the economy and oversaw the ruinous fire sale of state assets to politically connected businessmen who would become today’s oligarchs. Putin righted the ship, and Russians treasured that.
But now it’s Putin who’s imperiling the Russian economy, through a war that’s transforming Russia into a global outcast. It’s true that Putin’s arsenal includes the world’s biggest storehouse of nuclear weapons, along with a faithful army of hackers capable of wreaking cyber-havoc on the West. But if he loses the backing of everyday Russians, he may face a battle that he’s destined to lose.
If Biden could take back his speech slip-up, he probably would. But that doesn’t mean the meaning of the remark is any less valid. The world, including Russia, is better off without Putin in power. And unless Putin suddenly reverses course, it’s a safe bet that a growing number of Russians will feel the same way.
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