US isn't seeking to remove Putin from power, Blinken says

Patrick J. Mcdonnell and Kate Linthicum
Los Angeles Times

Lviv, Ukraine – Removing Russian President Vladimir Putin from power is not on Washington’s agenda, the top U.S diplomat said Sunday as Ukraine’s leader accused the West of lacking courage for failing to commit fighter jets and tanks to his nation’s war against invading Russian forces.

President Joe Biden’s dramatic Saturday declaration – “For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power,” a reference to Putin – has prompted a frantic effort from U.S. officials to walk back what appeared to be a White House endorsement of pushing the Russian leader out of office.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, left, next to Deputy Chief of Staff for Policy Tom Sullivan, meets with a "Palestinian Civil Society Roundtable" at America House, Sunday, March 27, 2022, in Jerusalem. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, Pool)

“We do not have a strategy of regime change in Russia, or anywhere else, for that matter,” Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken told reporters in Jerusalem on Sunday. “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.”

Biden’s off-the-cuff remarks in Warsaw at the finale of a rousing, pro-Ukrainian speech have prompted a firestorm of criticism at a moment when some fear the war in Ukraine could escalate into a larger, even more catastrophic conflict. Now in its second month, the war has turned into a grinding ordeal as Russian forces expand their reach across the north and south while Ukrainian counteroffensives have pushed Russian soldiers back from advancing on the capital, Kyiv.

Biden’s comments “made a difficult situation more difficult and a dangerous situation more dangerous,” Richard Haass, a veteran U.S. diplomat and chairman of the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations, wrote on Twitter. “This is obvious. Less obvious is how to undo the damage,” he added, suggesting that Biden’s team make it clear that they are indeed willing to deal with the current Russian leadership.

The concern is that Biden’s remarks played into Putin’s worldview that the West – with its NATO expansion and economic sanctions – wants to destroy Russia. In Jerusalem, Blinken said Biden’s comments were not meant to suggest that the Russian president should be replaced. Rather, Blinken said, Biden’s point was that Putin “cannot be empowered to wage war or engage in aggression against Ukraine or anyone else.”

The reaction in Moscow was predictably dismissive. “The president of Russia is elected by Russians,” Dmitry Peskov, a Kremlin spokesman, told reporters.

The Russian invasion has resulted in thousands of casualties and vast damage to Ukrainian cities and infrastructure. It also has displaced more than 10 million people, almost one-quarter of Ukraine’s population. More than 3.7 million refugees have fled the country, according to the United Nations, making it the largest refugee upheaval in Europe since World War II.

The images of destruction and mass displacement have clearly prompted Biden to ramp up his verbal attacks against Putin, whom he has labeled a killer, war criminal and, while in Warsaw on Saturday, a “butcher.” The comments have come as peace talks between Russia and Ukraine to end the conflict appear to have stalled.

Yet even as Biden faced criticism for potentially escalating the conflict, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy knocked him and other Western leaders for lacking courage for not supplying Ukraine with powerful weapons of war.

In a jab at Moscow, Zelenskyy said that the war – which Putin has said was launched in part to protect Ukrainians with “blood ties” to Russia – was having the opposite effect: stigmatizing a language that has long existed alongside Ukrainian as a native tongue for many Ukrainians, especially in the east and south.

“Russia itself is doing everything to ensure that de-Russification takes place on the territory of our state,” Zelenskyy said. “This is another manifestation of your suicide policy,” he added, directing his remarks at Moscow.

Kyrylo Budanov, the head of Ukrainian military intelligence, said in a statement that Russia’s goal was to split Ukraine in two, like North and South Korea.

“The occupiers will try to pull the occupied territories into a single quasi-state structure and pit it against independent Ukraine,” Budanov said, although he said guerrilla warfare by Ukrainians would derail such plans.

In recent days, Russia has said that its war aims now are based on consolidating gains in the eastern Donbas region, home of two pro-Moscow breakaway republics. Britain’s defense ministry said that Russian forces appear to be attempting to encircle Ukrainian forces arrayed against pro-Russia separatist fighters in that region.

Yet fighting and shelling have continued across the country, authorities said.

Russian troops Sunday continued battling for control of several key Ukrainian cities, including Kharkiv in the northeast and Mariupol in the south. Ukrainian forces have put up stiff resistance in various urban areas, including in Kyiv, the capital.

The western city of Lviv was still reeling Sunday from a pair of missile strikes Saturday afternoon that shattered the relative calm in a city that has largely been spared from the war, though it has been a hub for the war-displaced multitudes. Many residents speculated that the volley of Russian missiles, which hit a fuel depot and a military installation, were intended as a message to Biden, who was in nearby Poland when the attacks occurred.

“With these strikes the aggressor wants to say, ‘Hello,’ to President Biden,” Andriy Sadoviy, Lviv’s mayor, said late Saturday.

No one was killed in the two strikes in Lviv, authorities said. Both volleys appeared to hit their objectives with precision, despite the proximity of residential districts to the targets.

Lviv appeared calm Sunday as people attended church services, stopped at busy cafes and restaurants, and strolled in the streets of the cobble-stoned historic center. But the attacks were another reminder that the war was not just isolated to the embattled environs of Kyiv, 335 miles to the east, and to beleaguered cities in the far-away south, east and north.

“Of course it makes one nervous – this conflict is not a video game any more,” said Borys Babelashvili, 59, a shop owner who was walking his dog in the esplanade facing the city’s 19th-century opera house. “It’s natural to be worried. But one has to go on with one’s life.”

Nearby, two displaced families from the war-battered northeastern city of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-most populous after Kyiv, said they heard about the strikes after arriving here by train late Saturday. That Lviv was now in the cross-hairs of Russian cruise missiles wasn’t a welcome development. They had already experienced too many air and artillery attacks in Kharkiv.

“I hope the war is not following us here,” said Natasha Barsukova, 17, traveling with two siblings and her mother. “No, we don’t feel safe in Lviv either. We are moving on.”

The two families – two women and four children – were planning to leave the next day for Dusseldorf, Germany, one of many destinations for Ukrainian refugees.

Still remaining in Kharkiv are the children’s fathers who, as military-age men, are barred from leaving the country. Such separations are the norm in Ukraine now, as men bid goodbye to departing wives and children, mothers, sisters, girlfriends and others, who daily head out from besieged areas on foot, and in cars, buses and trains for the relative safety in the country’s west and beyond.

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McDonnell reported from Lviv and Linthicum from Mexico City. Los Angeles Times staff writer Tracy Wilkinson in Washington contributed to this report.