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On Poland visit, Biden says Putin 'cannot remain in power'

DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, HOST:

President Biden delivered a major speech in Poland today as Russia's invasion of Ukraine enters its second month. Speaking at the Royal Castle in Warsaw, Biden directed some especially tough language at Russia's Vladimir Putin and appeared to call for regime change in Moscow.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: For God's sake, this man cannot remain in power.

KURTZLEBEN: NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith was there in Warsaw for the speech, and she joins us now. Hi, Tam.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Hey, Danielle.

KURTZLEBEN: So President Biden was really tough on Putin in this speech. You were there. Tell us how it played out.

KEITH: Well, that bit you just played came at the very end of this passionate speech delivered to an audience that included refugees who fled their homes in Ukraine. And the immediate question when he said this was, did the president of the United States just say something off the cuff? Or is this U.S. policy that Vladimir Putin shouldn't remain in power? A White House official very quickly clarified that the president wasn't calling for regime change but was saying that Putin can't be allowed to exercise power over his neighbors in the region. And that's what you call a cleanup. But Heather Conley, president of the German Marshall Fund, told me what Biden said immediately sent shockwaves and will overshadow the rest of the trip and the rest of the speech and will also lead to questions from allies about whether the United States - about what the United States' position is with regards to Putin.

KURTZLEBEN: Right. And this was a carefully planned speech about unity for the allies until this one line that seemed to be calling for regime change stole the headlines. What exactly happened?

KEITH: A source familiar with the prepared remarks tells me that line wasn't in there. It wasn't part of the plan. And if you listen to the whole rest of the speech, the theme was clear that the democracies of the world, the defenders of freedom, are in a generational battle, that this is bigger than Russia's war on Ukraine.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BIDEN: This battle will not be won in days - or months, either. We need to steel ourselves for the long fight ahead.

KEITH: Steeling for the fight ahead was really the mission of this trip, as national security adviser Jake Sullivan explained yesterday. Unity among the allies is relatively easy to maintain in the early days when there's momentum and adrenaline. But as the war grinds on, as the cost of imposing these sanctions continues, it's going to get hard. And so this trip was about building a coalition that can last.

KURTZLEBEN: Now, Poland has been taking in more than half of the refugees that Russia has driven out of Ukraine, and President Biden met with some of them today. Tell us what that was like.

KEITH: It was this hectic scene. He visited a stadium in Warsaw where refugees are coming for services. He told reporters that he met people who had been in Mariupol, the city that has just been through hell from a relentless Russian siege. At one point, he picked up a young girl in a pink jacket and held her. He said that young girls told him they were worried about their fathers and their grandfathers who had stayed behind to fight, and it clearly had an impact on him. Afterward, he described Putin as a butcher.

KURTZLEBEN: You know, President Biden is heading back to the U.S. now after these talks with allies. Did he accomplish what he set out to do on this trip?

KEITH: This may be a question that we don't truly have an answer to for weeks or months, but the NATO allies, G-7 leaders, European Union leaders he met with stood united in opposition to Russia and in support of Ukraine. He did what he came to do. He said what he came to say. And then he said one more thing that could end up making all of that difficult. He was asked about it as he went to Air Force One, and he just kept walking.

KURTZLEBEN: That was NPR's Tamara Keith in Warsaw. Thanks, Tam.

KEITH: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.