As fighting raged across Ukraine and one of the country’s top military leaders warned that Russian forces may seek to split the nation in two, U.S. officials scrambled Sunday to clarify President Biden’s off-the-cuff condemnation of Russian President Vladimir Putin a day earlier, saying regime change in Moscow is not on Washington’s agenda.
President Biden’s dramatic Saturday declaration — “For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power,” a reference to Putin — has prompted a frantic effort to walk back what appeared to be a White House endorsement of pushing the Russian leader out of office.
“We do not have a strategy of regime change in Russia, or anywhere else, for that matter,” Secretary of State Anthony J. Blinken told reporters in Jerusalem on Sunday. “In this case, as in any case, it’s up to the people of the country in question, it’s up to the Russian people.”
Later, asked by a reporter as he exited a church service in Washington whether he was calling for removal of Putin, Biden replied “no.”
Biden’s remarks in Warsaw at the finale of a rousing, pro-Ukrainian speech prompted an outpouring of criticism at a moment when some fear the Russian invasion could escalate into a larger, even more catastrophic conflict. Now in its second month, the war has turned into a grinding ordeal as Russian forces continue to besiege the north and south while Ukrainian counteroffensives have pushed Russian soldiers back from advancing on the capital Kyiv.
Biden’s comments “made a difficult situation more difficult and a dangerous situation more dangerous,” Richard Haass, a veteran U.S. diplomat and chairman of the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations, wrote on Twitter. “This is obvious. Less obvious is how to undo the damage,” he added, suggesting that Biden’s team make it clear that they are indeed willing to deal with the current Russian leadership.
French President Emmanuel Macron, meanwhile, warned against verbal “escalation” with Moscow
The concern is that Biden’s remarks played into Putin’s worldview that the West — with its NATO expansion and economic sanctions — wants to destroy Russia. In Jerusalem, Blinken said Biden’s comments were not meant to suggest that the Russian president should be replaced. Rather, Blinken said, Biden’s point was that Putin “cannot be empowered to wage war or engage in aggression against Ukraine or anyone else.”
The reaction in Moscow was predictably dismissive. “The president of Russia is elected by Russians,” Dmitry Peskov, a Kremlin spokesman, told reporters.
The Russian invasion has resulted in thousands of casualties and vast damage to Ukrainian cities, with a recent report from the Kyiv School of Economics estimating $63 billion in damage to the nation’s infrastructure since Putin launched his invasion in late February.
The fighting has displaced more than 10 million people, almost one-quarter of Ukraine’s population, and more than 3.7 million refugees have fled the country, according to the United Nations.
The images of destruction and mass displacement have clearly prompted Biden to ramp up his verbal attacks against Putin, whom he has labeled killer, war criminal and, while in Warsaw on Saturday, a “butcher.” The comments have come as peace talks between Russia and Ukraine to end the conflict appear to have stalled.
While Biden faced criticism for potentially escalating the conflict, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky knocked him and other Western leaders for lacking courage for failing to commit fighter jets and tanks to his nation’s battle against invading Russian forces.
Ukraine, Zelensky said in video remarks, has asked NATO and its allies for aircraft and tanks to help repel Russian forces. But Western leaders have repeatedly equivocated out of fear that giving weapons to Ukraine could spark a wider war.
“Ukraine cannot shoot down Russian missiles using shotguns, machine guns,” Zelensky said in a speech early Sunday in which he also alluded to the besieged eastern city of Mariupol, where images of shell-battered apartment towers, hospitals and shopping centers have come to epitomize the destruction wrought by the war.
“I’ve talked to the defenders of Mariupol today. I’m in constant contact with them. Their determination, heroism and firmness are astonishing,” Zelensky said. “If only those who have been thinking for 31 days on how to hand over dozens of jets and tanks had 1% of their courage.”
Zelensky said that the war — which Putin has said was launched in part to protect Ukrainians with “blood ties” to Russia — was having the opposite effect: Stigmatizing a language that has long existed alongside Ukrainian as a native tongue for many Ukrainians, especially in the east and south.
“Russia itself is doing everything to ensure that de-Russification takes place on the territory of our state,” Zelensky said. “This is another manifestation of your suicide policy,” he added, directing his remarks at Moscow.
Kyrylo Budanov, the head of Ukrainian military intelligence, said that Russia’s goal was to split Ukraine in two, like North and South Korea.
“The occupiers will try to pull the occupied territories into a single quasi-state structure and pit it against independent Ukraine,” Budanov said, although he predicted that guerrilla warfare by Ukrainians would derail such plans.
In recent days, Russia has said that it is focused now on consolidating gains in the contested Donbas region, home of two pro-Moscow breakaway republics.
Leonid Pasechnik, the leader of the self-proclaimed Luhansk People’s Republic in the Donbas, said he may hold a referendum on his territory becoming part of Russia.
“I think that in the near future a referendum will be held on the territory of the republic, during which the people will… express their opinion on joining the Russian Federation,” Pasechnik said, according to Russian-state media organization TASS and other outlets.
Britain’s Defense Ministry said that Russian forces appear to be attempting to encircle Ukrainian forces arrayed against pro-Russia separatist fighters in that region.
Still, fighting and shelling have continued in other parts of the country.
Russian troops Sunday continued battling for control of several key Ukrainian cities, including Kharkiv in the northeast and Mariupol in the south. In the village of Oskil, outside of Kharkiv, shelling killed seven people, including two children, according to local officials.
Mariupol Mayor Vadim Boychenko said on Telegram that while Russian forces have entered his city, Mariupol remains “under the control of Ukrainian armed forces.”
“There is a Ukrainian flag flying over the city,” he said.
Ukrainian forces have put up stiff resistance in other urban areas, including in Kyiv, the capital. Ukrainian military officials said Sunday that some Russian troops had been withdrawn to regroup in Belarus, a Moscow-friendly country 125 miles north of Kyiv.
The western city of Lviv, a hub for the war-displaced multitudes that has otherwise been largely spared from the war, was hit Saturday afternoon by a pair of Russian air strikes. Many residents speculated that the volley of missiles, which hit a fuel depot and a military installation, was intended as a message to Biden, who was in nearby Poland when the attacks occurred.
“With these strikes the aggressor wants to say, ‘Hello,’ to President Biden,” Andriy Sadoviy, Lviv’s mayor, said late Saturday.
No one was killed in the two strikes in Lviv, authorities said. Both volleys appeared to hit their objectives with precision, despite the proximity of residential districts to the targets.
Lviv appeared calm Sunday as people attended church services, stopped at busy cafes and restaurants, and strolled in the streets of the cobble-stoned historic center. But the attacks were another reminder that the war was not just isolated to the embattled environs of Kyiv, 335 miles to the east, and to beleaguered cities in the far-away south, east and north.
“Of course it makes one nervous — this conflict is not a video game any more,” said Borys Babelashvili, 59, a shop owner who was walking his dog in the esplanade facing the city’s 19th-century opera house. “It’s natural to be worried. But one has to go on with one’s life.”
Nearby, two displaced families from the war-battered northeastern city of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-most populous after Kyiv, said they heard about the strikes after arriving here by train late Saturday. That Lviv was now in the cross-hairs of Russian cruise missiles wasn’t a welcome development. They had already experienced too many air and artillery attacks in Kharkiv.
“I hope the war is not following us here,” said Natasha Barsukova, 17, who was traveling with two siblings and her mother. “No, we don’t feel safe in Lviv either. We are moving on.”
The two families — two women and four children — were planning to leave the next day for Dusseldorf, Germany.
Still remaining in Kharkiv are the children’s fathers who, as military-aged men, are barred from leaving the country. Such separations are the norm in Ukraine now, as men bid goodbye to departing friends and family members who daily escape besieged areas on foot, and in cars, buses and trains for the relative safety in the country’s west and beyond.
McDonnell reported from Lviv and Linthicum from Mexico City. Times staff writer Tracy Wilkinson in Washington contributed to this report.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.