Russia launched a war intending to change the government in Kyiv. It openly says it is seeking “denazification” and “disarmament” of Ukraine. However, a comment by US President Joe Biden has now been taken as evidence that the US wants “regime change” in Moscow.
“For God’s sake, this man [Russian President Vladimir Putin] cannot remain in power,” Biden said in an impassioned speech.
US officials have walked back that quote, noting that “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.”
However, the critique of Biden’s comments seems to ignore the reality of the war in Ukraine. Russia is the aggressor.
It is Russia that invaded Ukraine. In fact, Russia has invaded Ukraine twice: once in 2014, when it annexed Crimea and carved out two small separatist states; and again in 2022, when it launched an unprecedented and unprovoked attack on Ukraine. This attack has shocked Europe and caused many to reconsider their previous ties to Russia.
However, the misinterpretation of Biden’s comments appears to be an attempt to set a trap for the US and prove a theory many had already: that the US is embarking on escalation in Ukraine and that this fits a pattern going back decades. However, the critics are wrong about this claim. Russia is the one that launched the war.
The US is providing defensive support for Ukraine, and US policy has been cautious. Against that policy are arrayed a number of far-right and far-left voices who have claimed the US is involved in pushing for “World War III” and that the US is somehow an “imperialist” power opposing the victim Russia. The US “provoked” Russia by wanting to extend NATO to Ukraine. These same voices claim a US “no-fly zone” could lead to “war” with Russia.
Now, these voices have jumped on Biden’s comments to prove that the US wants “regime change.” Furthermore, the comments are taken to now prove that Putin was right to be wary of US policy.
This puts the cart before the horse. Russia invaded Ukraine. Had it not invaded Ukraine, Ukraine wouldn’t have come close to being part of the EU or NATO. Ukraine faced and continues to face many hurdles to become part of the EU or NATO. But Russia’s attacks have now led many countries to seek US protection, and many European countries are plowing money into defense to avoid being treated like Ukraine.
The claim that Putin now can be affirmed in his concern about the US wanting regime change seems to ignore that Russia is the one actually doing regime change, trying to destroy Ukraine.
According to Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, “Putin will see it as confirmation of what he’s believed all along. Bad lapse in discipline that runs risk of extending the scope and duration of the war.”
The assertion that Putin, who ordered an invasion of a foreign country, can then take any comment slamming his actions as “confirmation of what he’s believed” appears to mean the US needs to try to appease Putin and make him think the US doesn’t want his warmongering replaced by peaceful leadership. It makes no sense and would be like arguing that Saddam Hussein, after invading Kuwait, is now “confirmed” in his views by the US putting together a coalition to remove him from Kuwait.
It reverses the action-and-reaction sequence. Russia invaded Ukraine under Putin. Iraq invaded Kuwait under Saddam. The US is reacting. That the US president thinks Putin is a danger makes sense in this regard.
The onus is on Russia to walk back its escalation and attacks. The narrative that posits the US engages in “regime change” should be squared with the fact that other countries, like Russia, also engage in “regime change.” If the critique of “regime change” wars is authentic, then the condemnation of Russia’s regime-change war would come first.
The reality is that Russia is not often held to the same standards as the US, despite being on the UN Security Council and ostensibly following the same international rules-based order as the US is supposed to follow.
Biden’s comments don’t affirm Putin’s concerns. Russia launched a war on Ukraine that was an unprovoked escalation and provocation.