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Biden pledges more military support for Ukraine, calls Putin a ‘butcher’

Joe Biden hit out at Russian President Vladimir Putin during a trip in Poland where he promised more military support for Ukraine. Fighting remained fierce on the 31st day of a war that shows no sign of ending.

(CN) — With the war in Ukraine now in its second month, U.S. President Joe Biden called Vladimir Putin a “butcher” on Saturday and further escalated tensions with the Kremlin during a Warsaw speech in which he called the Russian leader a “dictator” who “cannot remain in power.” 

“For God's sake, this man cannot remain in power,” Biden said at the end of the speech, a statement that was immediately seen as an endorsement of regime change in Moscow.  

White House aides quickly tried to cast Biden’s comment as not calling for the removal of Putin. White House officials have been careful to not call for regime change because such a statement could be used by the Kremlin to escalate tensions. For years, Putin has alleged the U.S. wants to destabilize Russia and that it has used Ukraine to that end.     

“The president’s point was that Putin cannot be allowed to exercise power over his neighbors or the region,” officials said in a statement to reporters, according to the New York Times. “He was not discussing Putin’s power in Russia, or regime change.” 

Biden delivered his remarks from inside the Royal Castle, a palace for Poland's past monarchs that was destroyed by German bombs during World War II, and he used the setting to call on the democratic West to “steel ourselves” for a long and difficult fight against authoritarians. He defined Ukraine as the “frontlines of freedom.”    

“In this battle, we need to be clear-eyed. This battle will not be won in days, or months either. We need to steel ourselves for the long fight ahead,” he said.  

In recent days, Biden has called Putin a “war criminal” and a “thug.” Such statements, some political analysts contend, make ceasefire negotiations in Ukraine much more difficult.  

On Saturday, Biden called Putin a “butcher” because of the brutality of his onslaught in Ukraine.   

“He’s a butcher,” Biden said in response to a reporter’s question as he stood with Ukrainian war refugees in Warsaw. 

Biden’s last day in Europe saw Russia striking the western Ukrainian city of Lviv near the Polish border. A fuel depot inside the city was struck, causing a massive fire, and a tank plant was reportedly hit on the city’s outskirts. This marked a serious escalation because Lviv and the rest of western Ukraine have largely been spared of attacks.   

Striking Lviv was seen as another warning to the West from the Kremlin. Russia has struck military targets in western Ukraine, including a NATO training center in Yavoriv on March 13 that killed at least 50 soldiers, among them Western volunteers who’d come to Ukraine to fight. 

“I think with these strikes the aggressor wants to say hello to President Biden who is in Poland,” Lviv's mayor, Andriy Sadoviy, told reporters. 

Until Saturday, Russia had not launched rockets near residential areas. The fuel depot was located inside Lviv and large fires were seen raging near residential areas and huge black plumes of smoke covered parts of the city.  

Russian rockets have been targeting fuel depots across Ukraine in an effort to cripple the army’s ability to supply its tanks and other military vehicles. 

Fighting continued to rage around Kyiv, the capital in north-central Ukraine on the Dnieper River, and in eastern and southern regions.   

Saturday marked the 31st day of a war that is bringing tremendous losses for both sides. Ukraine is claiming that it is on the counteroffensive, but its army is being pounded by Russia’s heavy artillery, long-distance missiles and warplanes. “Today, Russia has strangled democracy and sought to do so elsewhere, not only in his homeland,” Biden said in his Warsaw speech. 

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“Putin has the gall to say he’s de-Nazifying Ukraine. It’s a lie, it’s just cynical – he knows that,” Biden said. “And it’s also obscene. President [Volodymyr] Zelenskyy was democratically elected, he’s Jewish, his father’s family was wiped out in the Nazi holocaust and Putin has the audacity – like all autocrats before him – to believe that might will make right.” 

In launching the invasion, Putin said it was necessary to protect ethnic Russians because they had become victims of an anti-Russian regime in Kyiv.  

The sparks for this war go back to the so-called “Maidan Revolution” in 2014 when a pro-Western U.S.-backed uprising overthrew a democratically elected pro-Russian president who’d rejected signing a deal to bring Ukraine closer into the European Union. Neo-Nazi militias played a significant role in the overthrow of Viktor Yanukovych. After the overthrow of Yanukovych, Russia annexed Crimea and helped foment an armed rebellion in Donbas, regions of eastern Ukraine. War broke out there, killing about 14,000 people and forcing 2 million people from their homes. Putin used the continued fighting in Donbas as a reason for the invasion, saying he needed to bring peace to the region.  

After the Maidan uprising, Ukraine turned ever more westward and made becoming a NATO member part of its constitution. It also banned Russian news outlets, banned the pro-Russian Communist Party,  honored World War II-era nationalist heroes who’d collaborated with Nazi Germany, in particular Stepan Bandera, and put restrictions on the Russian language.     

Biden accused Putin of being “bent on violence from the start” and that there was “simply no justification or provocation” for the invasion.  

“There is simply no justification or provocation for Russia’s choice of war,” Biden said. “It’s nothing less than a direct challenge to the rule-based international order established since the end of World War II.”  

He said the invasion was a strategic failure for Russia and that Western sanctions are destroying the Russian economy.  

 “As a result of these unprecedented sanctions, the ruble almost was immediately reduced to rubble,” Biden said.  

He claimed NATO’s expansion into Central and Eastern Europe was not a threat to Russia and that the military alliance “never sought the demise of Russia.”  

In the run-up to the invasion, Biden said the U.S. and NATO offered Russia “concrete proposals” to calm escalating tensions but that those offers were repeatedly rejected. Putin demanded assurances that Ukraine would not become a NATO member, but that was rejected. 

“It is Putin, it is Vladimir Putin, who is to blame. Period,” Biden said.  

Biden said NATO must stay united for the long haul. “This is the task of our time,” he said.    

At the start and end of the speech, Biden quoted Polish Pope John Paul II, who had a hand in bringing down communism.  

“Never, ever give up hope, never doubt, never tire, never become discouraged. Be not afraid,” Biden said. 

Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, scoffed at Biden’s anti-Putin rhetoric.   

He said Biden’s “butcher” comment further narrowed the window of opportunity for improving relations between the two superpowers, as reported by Tass, the Russian news agency. 

He said he found it “strange” for Biden to be insulting Putin when he as a U.S. senator called “for the bombing of Yugoslavia and killing people” in 1999. 

Faced with international condemnation and an economic blockade by the West, Russia has stepped up its defense by accusing the West of double standards because the U.S. carried out brutal bombing in the former Yugoslavia, Iraq, Syria and Libya. 

As for Biden’s apparent call for Putin’s removal from office, Peskov told CNN: “This not to be decided by Mr. Biden. It should only be a choice of the people of the Russian Federation.” 

Earlier Saturday, Biden also met with Ukraine’s foreign minister and defense minister at a meeting in Warsaw and pledged to provide Kyiv with continued military support. The United States has delivered about $2 billion in military aid since Biden became president and Congress recently approved a $13.6 billion aid package for the country. 

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union. 

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