Antony Blinken: 'The US is not trying to topple Russian President Vladimir Putin'

The White House and Antony Blinken have been swift to clarify Biden's comments, as Correspondent Geraint Vincent reports

Secretary of State Antony Blinken says the US is not trying to topple Russian President Vladimir Putin, after President Joe Biden's remarks.

Blinken spoke a day after Biden said of Putin during a speech in Warsaw: “For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power.” He earlier described Putin as a “butcher”.

At a news conference in Jerusalem, Blinken said Biden’s point was that “Putin cannot be empowered to wage war or engage in aggression against Ukraine or anyone else.”

He said the US has repeatedly said that “we do not have a strategy of regime change in Russia, or anywhere else for that matter.”

“In this case, as in any case, it’s up to the people of the country in question. It’s up to the Russian people,” Blinken said.

Following Biden's highly-charged speech in Warsaw and apparent call for regime change, the White House was forced to issue a clarification and scramble back on the remark.

A White House official tried to argue that the US president’s point was that the Russian leader “cannot be allowed to exercise power over his neighbours or the region”.

“He was not discussing Putin’s power in Russia, or regime change,” the official said, before reports in the US suggested the remarks in question had not been written in advance.

As multiple rockets struck the city of Lviv near the Polish border in the west of Ukraine, Biden pleaded: “If you’re able to listen – you, the Russian people, are not our enemy.”

Richard Haass, a veteran US diplomat who is president of the Council on Foreign Relations think tank, said Biden’s remarks made “a dangerous situation more dangerous” when the strategy should be focused on de-escalation.

The UK government has also distanced itself from Biden's comments, as Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi said whether to overthrow Mr Putin for his invasion of Ukraine is “up to the Russian people”.

US president Joe Biden delivers a speech at the Royal Castle in Warsaw Credit: Petr David Josek/AP/PA

Interviewed on Sunday, Mr Zahawi said it is “for the Russian people to decide how they are governed” but suggested they “would certainly do well” to have someone who “is democratic and understands their wishes”.

“That’s up to the Russian people and it is only the Russian people that can make that decision, I suspect most of them are pretty fed up with Putin and his cronies and the illegal war,” he told the BBC’s Sunday Morning show.

But he declined to criticise Mr Biden, unlike Tobias Ellwood, the Conservative MP who chairs the Commons Defence Committee, who said Mr Putin will now “spin this, dig in and fight harder”.

Asked if Mr Biden was wrong to issue the call, Mr Zahawi told Sky’s Sophy Ridge on Sunday: “No, what I’m saying to you is the White House has been very clear on this, the president gave a very powerful speech on this and I think both the United States and the United Kingdom agree that it’s up to the Russian people to decide who should be governing them.”

The Education Secretary backed his Cabinet colleague Liz Truss in saying sanctions on oligarchs, banks and businesses could be lifted if Mr Putin ends the war and commits to “no further aggression”.

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With the Kremlin’s troops struggling, the Foreign Secretary’s comments will be seen as a possible incentive for Mr Putin to cut his losses and broker a deal with Ukraine.

She told the Sunday Telegraph: “Those sanctions should only come off with a full ceasefire and withdrawal, but also commitments that there will be no further aggression.

“And also, there’s the opportunity to have snapback sanctions if there is further aggression in future. That is a real lever that I think can be used.”

On Sunday, a member of Ukraine's negotiation team confirmed there will be more talks with their Russian counterparts in Turkey from Monday to Wednesday.

Moscow has given an indication it could scale back its offensive to focus on what it claimed was the “main goal, liberation of Donbas”, the region bordering Russia in the east of Ukraine.

But Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky warned he would not give up territory in peace talks as he noted that his troops have delivered “powerful blows” to invading forces.

Asked if Moscow was changing strategy to focus on the Donbas region, Mr Zahawi said that the Russian military is having “real problems” on the ground as the Ukrainians have “fought like lions”.

The latest intelligence update from the Ministry of Defence said that the Kremlin’s forces “appear to be concentrating their effort to attempt the encirclement of Ukrainian forces” in the east of the country.

“The battlefield across northern Ukraine remains largely static with local Ukrainian counterattacks hampering Russian attempts to reorganise their forces,” it added.