President Joe Biden's speech in Warsaw on Saturday movingly framed Vladimir Putin's invasion of Ukraine as a battle "between liberty and repression." Then Biden ad-libbed, putting a provocative capstone on what was otherwise a meticulously crafted message of resolve.
"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. 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 — 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.
Russians cannot be happy with the fallout that Putin's brutality in Ukraine has created for them. 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.
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.
As long as Putin continues his 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.
There was a time when Russians adored Putin. 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, would be 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.