When President Joe Biden said in off-the-script remarks in Poland on Saturday that Russian President Vladimir Putin “cannot remain in power,” he caused White House staff to quickly scramble to walk back his statement lest it be interpreted as a call for regime change in Moscow.
“The president’s point was that Putin cannot be allowed to exercise power over his neighbors or the region. He was not discussing Putin’s power in Russia, or regime change,” a White House official told news media in an email shortly after Biden’s surprising statement.
But then on Monday, Biden told reporters that he makes “no apologies” for his initial statement, which was cleaned up by his staff, and that he had meant to express “moral outrage” rather than policy change.
Biden has long been known for making odd, inappropriate or sometimes confusing extemporaneous remarks.
The whole messy episode captured the danger of Biden’s penchant for speaking carelessly and making high-profile gaffes. It’s one thing to make misstatements and then try to amend them for a domestic audience. But the consequences can be far graver when it comes to international relations — especially at a time when the U.S. and Russia stand just a moment away from a direct confrontation over the war in Ukraine.
The issue with Biden’s statement at the end of his speech in Poland — in which his full sentence was “For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power” — is that it implies he’s calling for Putin to be deposed. Putin could interpret that as, among other things, the U.S. suggesting it’s ready to go to war directly with Russia to topple him, or as encouragement of a coup from within the Kremlin.
It contradicts the line that Biden has typically taken so far on the conflict, in which he has usually said that the U.S. will only enter war if Russia attacks a NATO country. And Moscow was surprised.
"This is a statement that is certainly alarming,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said when asked about Biden’s initial remarks in Poland, according to Reuters. "We will continue to track the statements of the U.S. president in the most attentive way.”
French President Emmanuel Macron also distanced himself from Biden’s remarks, describing them as an obstacle to finding a diplomatic solution.
Biden has long been known for making odd, inappropriate or sometimes confusing extemporaneous remarks during public appearances, and the cleanup doesn’t necessarily undo the damage.
During the 2007 Democratic presidential primaries, Biden said of then-presidential candidate Barack Obama: "I mean, you got the first mainstream African American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy." He later apologized for deploying racialized and racist tropes about Obama being “clean” and “speaking well.” (He said he had fumbled in trying to use an expression his mother had taught him.)
But the original remark still drew scrutiny, affected his reputation and raised questions about his actual beliefs. That’s because when people hear a gaffe, they’re often prompted to wonder, “Did the speaker just accidentally say what they really mean?” (Michael Kinsley once wrote, “A gaffe is when a politician tells the truth — some obvious truth he isn’t supposed to say.”)
That question of identifying the real intention behind language is often higher stakes when it comes to international relations. Diplomats and politicians pay extremely close attention to the exact rhetoric of their foreign counterparts on matters of war and peace. Moreover, while they hang on to every word, they also may not have as much of a grasp of the idiomatic nature of a foreign language and may be less able to grapple with nuance or guess easily at alternate meanings. Thus, precision is of the utmost importance.
Now when the foreign counterparts in question are from a nuclear-armed geopolitical adversary on high alert, precision is in fact of existential importance. Adversaries don’t give each other the benefit of the doubt; in fact, they often assume the worst of their foe.
Samuel Charap, a Russia expert at Rand Corp., a nonprofit research organization, told The Washington Post that Biden’s initial statement about Putin not being in power “exacerbates existing threat perceptions regarding U.S. intentions.”
It is imperative that Biden shows more caution in the way he speaks, immediately.
“They might just be much more inclined to do hostile things in response even more than they already are. That is the challenge,” he said.
The Post said such repercussions could be actions like expelling more U.S. diplomats from Russia or undertaking cyberattacks. These kinds of responses would make communication even harder with Moscow and could escalate U.S.-Russia tensions even further.
The fact that these scenarios of escalation could happen based on Russia misinterpreting the meaning of Biden’s language as more belligerent than he apparently meant for it to sound speaks to how reckless he’s being when he makes these vague off-the-cuff remarks.
Worryingly, it’s not even his first slip-up on Russia-Ukraine language. Just two days before, he said the U.S. would respond “in kind” if Russia used chemical weapons in Ukraine even though he didn’t really mean what that seemed to outwardly suggest.
It is imperative that Biden shows more caution in the way he speaks, immediately. The cleanup for a gaffe about another politician in one’s own country is a lot simpler than one that can cause a military escalation.