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Joe Biden Is Calling for Regime Change in Russia and This Time It Isn't A Gaffe

Newsweek logo Newsweek 4/4/2022 Tom O'Connor
A combination of pictures created shows U.S. President Joe Biden during a signing ceremony at the White House in Washington, DC on November 18, 2021 and Russian President Vladimir Putin in a congress of the United Russia party in Moscow, on December 4, 2021. © MANDEL NGAN/MIKHAIL METZEL/SPUTNIK/AFP/Getty Images A combination of pictures created shows U.S. President Joe Biden during a signing ceremony at the White House in Washington, DC on November 18, 2021 and Russian President Vladimir Putin in a congress of the United Russia party in Moscow, on December 4, 2021.

When President Joe Biden told the world from Warsaw on March 26 that his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin "cannot remain in power," the White House quickly sought to downplay the U.S. leader's remarks, noting that Biden's remarks were not a call for "regime change" in Moscow.

But Biden then told reporters he was "not walking back anything," and that his words were an expression of his "moral outrage" at the atrocities he believed a man he's branded a "war criminal" has been responsible for throughout the ongoing war in Ukraine.

The president doubled down on these accusations on Monday, after images emerged purporting to show massacres committed by withdrawing Russian troops in the Ukrainian cities of Bucha and Trostyanets. Russia has denied committing atrocities.

"You may remember I got criticized for calling Putin a war criminal," Biden told reporters on the White House lawn. "You saw what happened in Bucha...he is a war criminal."

"But we have to gather the information," added, "we have to continue to provide Ukraine with the weapons they need to continue the fight, and we have to get all the detail so this can be an actual...wartime trial."

Asked if Putin himself should have to answer for such allegations, Biden said "he should be held accountable."

And while the Biden administration insists there has not been any fundamental shift in Washington's policy, a concerted effort to gather evidence of alleged Russian wrongdoing in the conflict and hold officials, including Putin himself, accountable, marks the first time in more than three decades of Russia's post-Soviet history and more than two decades of Putin's own rule that the U.S. was openly seeking to impose against the Kremlin costs that could bring into question the legitimacy of its leadership.

The implications of such a historic shift are uncertain, though rife with risks that may challenge relations between two nations that collectively hold around 90% of the world's nuclear weapons.

Putin has also long portrayed undesirable U.S. policies against his country as an effort to erode his power and Russia's own position on the world stage.

Rajan Menon, who serves as director of the grand strategy program at the Defense Priorities think tank, senior research fellow at the Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies at Columbia University and professor emeritus at the City College of New York, told Newsweek that the "outrage" expressed by the Biden administration over recent reports of mass killings of civilians in Bucha and Trostyanets as well as the "human catastrophe" surrounding Russia's siege of Mariupol "are understandable—indeed appropriate."

"Moreover, the anger will grow because more horrific incidents will likely come to light," he added. "That said, there are two consequences to keep in mind as the president of the United States calls for regime change in Russia — even without using that term —and Putin's trial as a war criminal."

Menon said the first such consequence is that "Biden will be hard-pressed to reject calls for additional military steps, such as a no-fly zone, because those calling for them will ask why he's holding back when he himself has recognized and condemned the atrocities, and said that Putin should no longer be in power and should indeed be tried for war crimes."

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"Yet deeper U.S. military involvement is not without risks," Menon said. "[It's] important to consider when the other side happens to be the world's other nuclear superpower."

Menon said the second order of fallout is the "tension between stark denunciations of Russia and the United States' ability to facilitate a diplomatic settlement of the war — on terms acceptable to Ukraine, of course — whenever that time comes."

"U.S. involvement may prove important, but Moscow may balk," Menon added. "Can you imagine a Biden-Putin phone call, let alone a face-to-face meeting?"

Officials in Moscow have depicted the precipitous downturn in relations between the two as the fault of Washington.

Following Biden's speech in Poland, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova told reporters last Tuesday that Putin's administration was still interested in conducting diplomacy with the U.S. and that "even during the most controversial times we reaffirmed our desire to build equitable relations with Washington."

"If their choice is what we are seeing and which obviously leads to the destruction of bilateral relations, then they will bear responsibility for this," Zakharova said.

Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told Reuters shortly after Biden's remarks that Putin's fate was "not for Biden to decide" as "the president of Russia is elected by Russians."

China, the top rival of the U.S. and leading strategic partner of Russia, also took note of Biden's comments.

In a March 28 tweet, the Chinese ambassador to Malta, Yu Dunhai, said it was "reasonable to think" that Biden's call for Putin to leave power was "not just a slip of the tongue." Rather, the envoy said "it reveals the true intentions of the US on Ukraine war, namely killing 3 birds with 1 stone: -a regime change -a much weakened Russia -a more dependent Europe."

The U.S. has a long history of trying to unseat unfavorable world leaders by force, and, even when this fails, Washington has tapped into a broad arsenal of economic and diplomatic measures to maintain pressure against foes.

Putin became one of only eight heads of state to be blacklisted by the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control in February, days after he launched the war against Ukraine following failed negotiations with the U.S. and NATO over their military presence in Eastern Europe and Kyiv's bid to join the alliance.

Of this short list, only four others — President Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus, Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un of North Korea, President Bashar al-Assad of Syria and President Nicolas Maduro of Venezuela — were actually first hit with sanctions while leading their respective nations.

U.S. ties with nuclear-armed North Korea have also been complex, especially so after then-President Donald Trump took the unprecedented step of meeting Kim as part of an abortive denuclearization-for-peace process. But the Biden administration has repeatedly made clear it did not view Lukashenko, Assad or Maduro as legitimate leaders and has actively backed those who wished to overthrow them.

All four of the sanctioned leaders are still in power.

Moscow's own massive nuclear weapon stockpile, its internal stability and its status as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council severely limit U.S. options to challenge Putin's rule, even if the State Department has amped up criticism of Putin's imprisonment of opposition leader Alexey Navalny.

Russia's power and influence, even in the face of the U.S. and European Union-led coalition of sanctions against the country, also make it unlikely that Putin or his top officials would actually face criminal accountability in forums such as the International Criminal Court in The Hague, Netherlands.

"Leaving aside the question of whether those responsible for the Russian atrocities in Ukraine should be held accountable — and in the abstract, they should be — the probability of Putin or anyone from his inner circle being tried by the ICC, from whose founding treaty Russia withdrew in 2016, or any other international tribunal, is remote at best," Menon said.

The White House did not immediately respond to Newsweek's request for comment.

But Biden's national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, told reporters Monday that the U.S. was consulting with partners and allies on a mechanism to pursue Putin, noting that the ICC was "one venue where war crimes have been tried in the past, but there have been other examples in other conflicts of other mechanisms being set up."

"So, there is work to be done to work out the specifics of that," he added. "And between now and then, every day, what we are focused on is continuing to apply pressure to the Russian economy and provide weapons to the Ukrainian people to be able to defend themselves."

The White House has also deflected such measures against citizens of the U.S. and allied countries, with the Trump administration going so far as to impose sanctions against ICC officials in response to an attempt to probe possible war crimes committed by U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

The Biden administration lifted these sanctions last year, but voiced stark opposition to any effort for the ICC to investigate Israel for potential violations of international law committed against Palestinians in their long-running conflict.

And, unlike the shifting tides of the U.S. political system, Putin is set to stay in power for some time, with a change in law allowing him to run for another series of back-to-back four-year terms in 2024, the same year Biden faces a potentially arduous presidential contest of his own, one Russia state-run media outlets have publicly expressed hope would return Trump to power.

Even in the face of the tightening sanctions his war in Ukraine has brought his country, recent polling from the independent, Moscow-based Levada Center has reported a substantial uptick in domestic support for Putin, bringing his favorability to 83%.

No matter how deep the rift between Washington and Moscow gets, the two sides appear fated to deal with one another for the foreseeable future.

"Will the calls for such trials make U.S. relations with Russia even worse?" Menon asked rhetorically. "Yes," he said.

"Will they nevertheless continue?" he added. "Yes."

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