ANALYSIS — The White House might have walked back President Joe Biden’s declaration that Vladimir Putin “cannot remain in power” in Russia, but his words and actions since then fall in line with the boldest statement of his term.
Since that March 26 remark in Poland was walked back by West Wing aides, only to have Biden stand by them a few days later, his administration has sanctioned more influential Russian individuals and entities and slapped more export controls on Moscow. On Wednesday, the administration sought to end U.S. investment inside Russia.
The White House again this week contended — publicly, at least — that Biden does not have a policy of regime change in Moscow. But questions to that end are lobbed at Press Secretary Jen Psaki and other White House officials daily. And for good reason.
With every utterance and action, plenty of evidence suggests the commander in chief and his Cabinet are methodically trying to create a new world order — one that doesn’t include Putin, even if he remains in power in Russia for some time.
The Biden administration’s emerging policy is to work with allies to get more tank-killing, automatic rifles, “killer drones,” coastal defense systems and other weapons into Ukrainian hands as quickly as possible — while using sanctions and other economic moves like an X-Acto knife to cut Russia out of the global economy.
Even Republicans in Congress have not griped too loudly about Biden’s approach, mostly dinging him for not getting more lethal weapons in Ukrainians’ hands faster. They appear to share his worries about a shooting war between American and Russian forces, indirectly backing his methodical effort to create economic and other pressures on the Russian hard-liner on his own soil. For example, on Thursday, all 100 senators voted to remove the normal trade relations status between the U.S. and Russia and to prohibit the import of Russian oil and energy products into the United States.
Biden on Monday promised new sanctions were coming soon, and he delivered on Wednesday. The White House announced sanctions to block any new American investment in Russia, a move it said in a statement “builds on the decision made by more than 600 multinational businesses to exit from Russia.”
Brian Deese, a mild-mannered Biden economic adviser, on Wednesday described a Russia being isolated economically by both governments around the world and, as importantly, the private sector. “So we have seen an overwhelming move by companies to take actions on their own to pull out of Russia and end investment in Russia,” he told reporters.
Deese, a thoughtful and polished public speaker, notably said “end.” He could have said “frozen” or “suspended,” but he opted for a more permanent descriptor.
Later that day, Biden told a buildings trade union conference in Washington that his goal is to continue using sanctions and other economic penalties “to ratchet up pain for Putin. “This fight is far from over,” he warned in a statement that seems geared for an audience of one in Moscow.
Since Putin ordered Russian troops to invade Ukraine under the dark of night on Feb. 24, there have been more than 90 major moves via sanctions, trade actions, travel restrictions and other economic penalties made by the United States and other countries against Russia, according to the Peterson Institute for International Economics.
Those 90-plus global moves were made before Russian troops departed Bucha, a suburb of Kyiv, leaving behind the bodies of civilians who Ukrainian officials say were murdered. Many were bound with hands behind their backs, lying alongside others in the streets with gunshot wounds to their heads.
An analysis of satellite imagery provided to The New York Times by Maxar Technologies refuted Russian claims that the bodies were placed there after their troops left. The Times concluded some had been lying lifeless in Bucha streets since March 11.
As he returned to Washington from his Delaware home on Monday morning, Biden was asked this about the Bucha images: “Do you agree that it’s genocide?”
He replied: “No, I think it is a war crime.” But he also pivoted back to his walked-back-then-stood-by declaration that Putin “cannot remain in power.”
“But we have to gather the information. We have to continue to provide Ukraine with the weapons they need to continue the fight,” he said. “And we have to get all the details so this can be an actual, have a war crimes trial.”
World leaders who are brought up on war crimes charges rarely hold power for long, and after the Bucha brutality, it is difficult to see how Putin can remain in power and keep the Russian economic train on the tracks.
“With the West leveling unprecedented sanctions against Russia in record time and the real potential for a descent into nuclear war, we are in uncharted territory. It is difficult to see how Putin ‘wins,’” Matthew Burrows and Robert A. Manning wrote recently for the Atlantic Council think tank. “But he cannot accept defeat.”
“Whatever scenario comes next, there is little doubt that Russia will enter a period of faster decline. Only in the case of an early end to the fighting, a peace settlement, and Putin’s ouster … could Russia hope to stem its loss of power,” the duo wrote. “Moscow’s deepening dependence on Beijing will no doubt grate on the Russian psyche and spur resentment in China.”
‘Then why not?’
Against that backdrop, it is not surprising that Psaki was peppered with questions about regime change on Tuesday.
One reporter, using Biden’s own description, asked her: “I guess the question, people say, ‘Then why not? If he’s a war criminal, why should he be allowed to stay in power?’”
Psaki replied: “Well, our policy is not to call for regime change. We’re not calling for regime change. But again, he is somebody who’s committed atrocities against the people in his country. He’s a pariah in the world. And every step we’ve taken has made that clear to the global community.”
Indeed, every step Biden and company, including Washington’s Western allies, continue to take fall in line with the U.S. leader’s March 26 declaration.
In the world the administration is trying to construct, doing business deals with Putin would be beyond toxic. As Burrows and Manning put it, in Russia, “a deep recession [is] already baked in for the foreseeable future.”
“Putin is also counting on the quietism of the Russian public,” they wrote. “But as the situation deteriorates, with growing popular unrest, one can imagine … a coup d’état attempt by a cabal of senior siloviki (the security elite) and irate oligarchs — or Putin’s peaceful removal from office.”
Biden’s instincts led him first to conclude his Warsaw remarks with those bold words, then stand by them a few days later. His years studying foreign policy and Putin continue to drive his push for major changes in Russia, even if reporters, lawmakers and analysts misuse the term “regime change” to mean only reforms brought about by U.S. military troops.
Yet another example came Tuesday when a senior administration official, speaking anonymously to be candid, said the U.S. president’s goal is to drive Russia “into economic and financial and technological isolation” that would take it “back to Soviet-style living standards from the 1980s.”