President Joe Biden used a last-minute trip to Europe this week to rally the world’s democracies and announce more actions against Russia for its invasion of Ukraine, while also causing a geopolitical stir with one of the final lines from his speech in Poland.
The President’s four-day stint began in Brussels, where he attended snap summits and held bilateral meetings with other world leaders. Biden then traveled to Poland, where he met with American troops stationed just west of Ukraine, spoke with humanitarian workers and refugees, and held talks with Polish President Andrzej Duda. It ended with what will become one of the signature speeches of the President’s career as he evoked European history to make the case for democracy and said Russian President Vladimir Putin “cannot remain in power,” a seismic statement that the White House quickly tried to downplay.
Throughout his visit, Biden sought to reinforce his broad-reaching foreign policy framework, discussing his heartbreak about the humanitarian crisis at hand and telling American troops in Poland that they were “in the midst of a fight between democracies and oligarchs.”
The trip was a test of what the United States could do to rally alliances following years of absent leadership, proving to also be an assessment of just how much the Western alliances can achieve when they are fully united.
Here are eight takeaways from Biden’s visit to Belgium and Poland:
Biden says Putin ‘cannot remain in power’
At the end of his address from Warsaw, capping off his trip, Biden made a major declaration that quickly sent shock waves across Europe and through the White House press office.
“For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power,” Biden announced at the very conclusion of a capstone address delivered outside the Royal Castle in Warsaw.
For a few moments, it appeared to be a clear call for regime change in Russia, and the Kremlin reacted quickly to the President’s words, with Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov saying, “This is not to be decided by Mr. Biden. It should only be a choice of the people of the Russian Federation.”
However, before Biden’s plane had taken off for Washington, the White House was already downplaying the comments. A White House official said Biden wasn’t referencing regime change when he said Putin “cannot remain in power.”
“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,” a White House official said.
It was a response that attempted to put the President’s speech in line with larger US policy. American officials had said previously that removing Putin from power was not their goal.
“For us, it’s not about regime change. The Russian people have to decide who they want to lead them,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said earlier this month.
A separate White House official told CNN after the speech that the line was not in Biden’s prepared remarks.
White House forced to clean up multiple other Biden comments that raised eyebrows
The line at the end of Biden’s speech in Warsaw will be the one that is longest remembered, but it was not the only time that the White House needed to clarify some of the President’s remarks during his four-day swing through Europe.
On Thursday, during a news conference in Brussels, Biden said the United States would respond “in kind” if Russia used chemical weapons in Ukraine. When asked by a reporter on Friday if that meant the US would use chemical weapons on Russia, national security adviser Jake Sullivan said the United States had “no intention of using chemical weapons period – under any circumstance.”
Asked about Biden’s comments, Sullivan said the President also said the United States would respond “accordingly.”
Sullivan added, “Meaning we will elect the form and nature of our response based on the nature of the action Russia takes, and we’ll do so in coordination with our allies, and we’ve communicated to the Russians as the President said publicly a couple of weeks ago that there will be a severe price if Russia uses chemical weapons, and I wont go beyond that other (than) to say, ‘The United States has no intention of using chemical weapons period under any circumstances.’”
On Friday in Poland, Biden made an apparent slip by suggesting the US troops he was speaking to would see Ukrainians in action. Biden has made clear that US troops will not fight in Ukraine, and his remark did not appear to be anything other than a slip.
“The average citizen, look at how they’re stepping up. And you’re going to see when you’re there, I don’t know if you’ve been there, you’re going to see women, young people, standing in the middle of the damn tank, saying ‘I’m not leaving. I’m holding my ground’,” Biden said.
A White House spokesperson responded to the comment, saying, “The President has been clear we are not sending U.S. troops to Ukraine and there is no change in that position.”
Biden warns the world’s democracies that a time is coming for resolve and unity
The end of the Warsaw speech will be the most memorable line from an address that widely called for democracies to steel themselves against the threat of autocracies in the years and decades to come. Biden has often said that the defining battle of the coming era is democracy versus rising autocracies, and he said Ukraine was the front line in that fight.
Biden, standing along NATO’s eastern edge, in Poland, issued a stern warning during his speech, telling Putin: “Don’t even think about moving on one single inch of NATO territory.” He said the US was committed to the collective protection obligations laid out in NATO’s charter “with the full force of our collective power.”
In a message to the Poles and other NATO allies, Biden used a Cold War-era cry from the late Polish-born Pope John Paul II to rally a nation facing new threats.
“Be not afraid,” Biden said.
“Nothing about that battle for freedom was simple or easy. It was a long, painful slog, fought over not days and months but years and decades,” Biden told the crowd in Warsaw. “We emerged anew in a great battle for freedom, a battle between democracy and autocracy, between liberty and repression.”
He said the same lessons must be applied to the current threat from Russia.
“This battle will not be won in days or months either. We need to steel ourselves for a long fight ahead,” Biden said.
Biden announces new sanctions and measures to help Ukrainian refugees
Much like other leaders at the summits, Biden used his meetings on Thursday and Friday to announce a slew of new actions aimed at punishing Russia and aiding Ukrainians.
On Thursday, his administration issued sanctions against hundreds of Russian politicians, business leaders and defense companies. The new restrictions target 328 members of the 450-seat Russian State Duma, the lower house of the two-tiered Russian Parliament, and cut off 48 Russian defense and materiel companies from Western technology and financing. The US also sanctioned Herman Gref – the head of Sberbank – who has worked with Putin since the 1990s, when both men worked in the mayor’s office of St. Petersburg.
The US also put sanctions on longtime Putin associate Gennady Timchenko – his companies, family members and yacht – as well as 17 board members of Russian financial institution Sovcombank, according to the White House.
Biden announced that the US will accept up to 100,000 refugees fleeing the war in Ukraine, with an emphasis n protecting the most vulnerable among the refugee populations, including members of the LGBTQ community, those with medical needs, journalists and third-country nationals. A senior administration official said a “full range of legal pathways” would be utilized to welcome the refugees.
On Friday, Biden and his counterpart at the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, unveiled a joint task force aimed at weaning Europe off its dependence on Russian oil and gas. The panel is aimed at finding alternative supplies of liquified natural gas and reducing overall demand for natural gas moving forward.
The United States will work toward supplying Europe with at least 15 billion cubic meters of liquified natural gas in 2022, in partnership with other nations, the White House said.
Russia hits Lviv with airstrikes after days of Western allies meetings on the war
After days of Western allies meeting and talking about how to punish Putin and Russia for the invasion of Ukraine, the Russian military appeared to send a message to Biden with an airstrike on a fuel depot in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv.
Lviv is the city to which many displaced Ukrainians have fled and is where many Western media outlets have made their home base to cover the war. While Russian military officials said that they intended to focus their campaign in the disputed eastern parts of Ukraine, the attack on Lviv was conspicuously timed, coming just before Biden was to speak in Warsaw, about 200 miles away in Poland.
Russian military officials also used the trip as a moment to put their own spin on how the conflict is going. Russian Colonel General Sergei Rudskoy on Friday claimed that Russian forces had encircled cities around Ukraine in a deliberate effort to tie down Ukrainian forces and prevent them from focusing on the separatist regions of Donbas before Russia “liberates” them. Putin has stated that the goal of the conflict is the complete demilitarization of the country and has said that the war is going according to plan.
However, Russian forces have incurred serious losses. And military analysts and observers say Russian advances appear to have stalled around major Ukrainian cities, such as Kyiv and Kharkiv.
Following world leaders’ meetings in Brussels, Putin said in a videoconference with workers of arts and literature on Friday that the West was trying to “cancel” Russia.
“J.K. Rowling has recently been canceled because she … did not please the fans of the so-called gender freedoms,” Putin, who has railed against transgender and gay rights, said, referring to the “Harry Potter” author.
“Today, they are trying to cancel a whole thousand-year-old country, our people. I am talking about the increasing discrimination of everything related to Russia, about this trend, which is unfolding in a number of Western states,” he added.
Zelensky left frustrated by unmet requests from NATO
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky virtually addressed leaders gathered in Brussels several times during the summits, repeatedly calling them out and asking them to do more to protect his country.
Zelensky told NATO leaders that Ukraine – which is not a NATO member – needs just a fraction of the alliance’s combined firepower, saying, “You can give us 1% of all your planes. One percent of all your tanks. One percent!”
“You have thousands of fighter jets, but we have not been given one yet,” he added.
Zelensky argued that NATO leaders should acknowledge what Ukraine’s armed forces have demonstrated in the war against Russia, telling the group, “Please, never tell us again that our army does not meet NATO standards.”
On another videoconference, Zelensky asked the G7 countries how many urgent summits would need to be held until the problems created by Russia could be solved, calling on the nations to issue a “full embargo to trade” with Russia.
Zelensky separately thanked European Council members for putting sanctions on Russia but lamented that “it was a little late.”
“You blocked (the) Nord Stream 2 (pipeline). We are grateful to you. And rightly so. But it was also a little late, because if it had been in time, Russia would not have created a gas crisis. At least there was a chance,” he told the council.
Speaking to the council, Zelensky issued pointed remarks to Hungary, calling on the country’s prime minister, Viktor Orban, to “decide already” on its treatment of Russia.
“You hesitate whether to impose sanctions or not? And you hesitate whether to let weapons through or not? And you hesitate whether to trade with Russia or not? There is no time to hesitate. It’s time to decide already,” Zelensky said.
Possible Russian use of chemical weapons in Ukraine looms over summits
In Brussels, Biden met with global leaders on how the world would respond if Russia deploys a chemical, biological or nuclear weapon.
The use of such weapons would force NATO into a new posture, officials have acknowledged. But exactly how NATO would respond to the provocation remains unclear.
When asked on Thursday if the use of chemical weapons in Ukraine would trigger a military response from NATO, Biden said it would trigger a response “in kind.”
The answer led Sullivan, Biden’s national security adviser, to clarify that the US response to a potential chemical weapons attack by Russia would be done in coordination with allies.
Sullivan would not say what the response would entai, but said that Russia would pay a “severe price” and emphasized that “the United States has no intention of using chemical weapons, period – under any circumstances.”
The G7 issued a warning in its final joint statement against such an action. And NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg – whose tenure was extended a year amid the current crisis – said use of a chemical weapon would fundamentally change the nature of the conflict.
Biden’s meeting with refugees touches an emotional nerve
On the trip, Biden repeatedly sought to highlight the refugee crisis that has ensued as a result of the war, a crisis he saw firsthand when visiting Ukrainian refugees on Saturday.
One woman Biden spoke with told him she was there with her daughter, but her husband and son were back in Ukraine fighting. The woman, via a translator, spoke about the horror her family has endured and remarked of Putin: “We Ukrainian mothers are ready to strangle him with our bare hands.”
The President also met with chef José Andrés and other volunteers in Warsaw at a food distribution site for Andrés’ World Center Kitchen, the nonprofit devoted to providing meals in the wake of disasters. Biden met with some of the volunteers, some from Europe and some from the United States.
“God love ya,” the President could be heard saying to them and asking if he could help them.
More than 3.5 million refugees have now fled Ukraine, according to data from the United Nations refugee agency released on Tuesday. Poland, a nation that has seen more than 2 million refugees from Ukraine enter its borders, has sought to get more US resources and flexibility in immigration policies to aid with the influx.
After meeting with the refugees, Biden was asked his opinion of Putin as he deals with the Russian leader every day. Biden responded, “He’s a butcher.”
During the brief Q&A session with reporters, Biden recounted how he had been to similar places in his life but that he is always surprised by “the depth and strength of the human spirit.”
“It’s incredible, it’s incredible. See all those little children. Just want to hug, just want to say thanks. I mean, it’s, just makes you so damn proud,” he said.
He added, “Each one of those children said something to the effect, ‘Say a prayer for my dad or my grandfather or my brother who’s back there fighting.’ And I remember what it’s like when you have someone in a war zone. Every morning you get up and you wonder. You just wonder. And you pray you don’t get that phone call.”
Upon his arrival in Poland on Friday, Biden met with humanitarian workers to discuss their efforts, saying he would have preferred to see the crisis from an even closer perspective but was prevented by security concerns.
“They will not let me, understandably, I guess, cross the border and take a look at what’s going on in Ukraine,” he said. The White House has said it did not explore a visit to Ukraine.
CNN’s Kevin Liptak, Andrew Carey, Yulia Kesaieva, Hira Humayu, Arnaud Siad and Nathan Hodge contributed to this report.