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“Reckless & Damaging”: Could Biden’s Suggestion of Regime Change in Moscow Endanger Peace Talks?

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Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said he is open to Ukraine becoming a neutral country but said such a decision could only be made by a nationwide referendum after Russian troops withdraw. This comes as the White House quickly tried to walk back President Biden’s remarks made during a speech on Saturday in Poland during which he appeared to endorse regime change in Moscow. We get responses from Democratic Congressmember Ro Khanna and Quincy Institute President Andrew Bacevich. “The responsibility to negotiate with the Russians, to come to a settlement that is agreeable to Ukrainians, that belongs to President Zelensky,” says Bacevich, who called Biden’s comments “reckless and damaging.” Khanna adds that while “the American president does have a leadership role” in resolving the crisis, Biden’s remarks were not representative of U.S. policy, saying the president “was speaking from the heart.”

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has said he’s open to Ukraine becoming a neutral country but said such a decision could only be made by a nationwide referendum after Russian troops withdraw. Ukraine and Russia are expected to resume talks Tuesday in Istanbul, Turkey.

This comes as the United Nations reports more than 3.8 million Ukrainian refugees have fled the country since the start of Russia’s invasion. About 2.2 million of the refugees have gone to Poland, where President Biden visited over the weekend. In a speech in Poland Saturday, Biden appeared to endorse regime change in Moscow.

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Ukraine will never be a victory for Russia, for free people refused to live in a world of hopelessness and darkness. We will have a different future, a brighter future, rooted in democracy and principle, hope and light, of decency and dignity, of freedom and possibilities. For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power.

AMY GOODMAN: The White House quickly tried to walk back Biden’s remark. In a statement, a White House official said, quote, “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.” Earlier on Saturday, Biden also described Putin as a “butcher” when questioned by a reporter.

REPORTER: You’re dealing every day with Vladimir Putin. I mean, look at what he’s done to these people. What does it make you think?

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: He’s a butcher.

AMY GOODMAN: On Sunday, French President Emmanuel Macron openly warned against using language that could escalate the crisis in Ukraine.

PRESIDENT EMMANUEL MACRON: [translated] I think we must keep to the facts and do everything to not escalate things. I wouldn’t use this type of wording, because I continue to hold discussion with President Putin. What do we want to do collectively? We want to stop the war that Russia has launched in Ukraine, without waging war and without escalation and through diplomatic means. The objective is to obtain a ceasefire and complete withdrawal of troops. If that is what we want to do, we should not escalate things, neither with words nor actions.

AMY GOODMAN: We begin today’s show with two guests. Ro Khanna is a Democratic congressmember from California, member of the House Armed Services Committee. And Andrew Bacevich is the president and co-founder of the antiwar think tank Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. He’s a retired colonel, Vietnam War veteran. Professor Bacevich taught international relations and history at Boston University. He’s author of several books, including After the Apocalypse: America’s Role in a World Transformed.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Let’s begin with Congressmember Ro Khanna. Your response to President Biden’s comments essentially endorsing regime change for Putin?

REP. RO KHANNA: Amy, let me be very clear: The United States policy is not of regime change. There’s no support in the Congress, certainly among Democrats, for a policy of regime change. Many of us have been opposed to regime change policy in this country over the last 20 years. I think President Biden was speaking about the extraordinary frustrations with Putin’s brutal campaign of killing and targeting women and children, and he was speaking from the heart. But I’m glad that the White House has explicitly clarified that the goal is not regime change. And ultimately, we need a negotiated end to this war and a ceasefire.

AMY GOODMAN: He made the comment off script, apparently, not in the teleprompter, right after talking about the Russian protesters, which seemed to suggest they should overthrow him.

REP. RO KHANNA: He did. And I think the president was meeting with Ukrainian refugees. I think he’s seeing the same horrific images that we are out of Mariupol and other places, where the Russians are literally bombing places that have children there, that have women there. And I think he was speaking to the crimes that Putin is committing against the Ukrainian people, against humanity. But that expression should not translate into any role for the United States to effect regime change in Russia, and the White House since then has been crystal clear that that’s not the United States policy.

What we ought to be doing is supporting Zelensky in his desire to bring a ceasefire and a negotiation. Amy, let me make one point, which is that the Russians, I don’t think, will succeed in annexing Ukraine. That doesn’t mean that they may not succeed in destroying Ukraine and causing loss of lives. The people who suffer the most from the prolonged war are the Ukrainian civilians. We need to do everything we can to protect life and bring the war to an end.

AMY GOODMAN: Secretary of State Antony Blinken attempted to walk back Biden’s comments Sunday. He was speaking in Jerusalem.

Bq. SECRETARY OF STATE ANTONY BLINKEN: The president, the White House, made the point last night that, quite simply, President Putin cannot be empowered to wage war or engage in aggression against Ukraine or anyone else. As you know and as you’ve heard us say repeatedly, we do not have a strategy of regime change in Russia, or anywhere else, for that matter.

AMY GOODMAN: Andrew Bacevich, your response?

ANDREW BACEVICH: I think I’m a little less sympathetic. President Biden is a seasoned statesman. He’s been around for quite a while. He should have learned to think before he speaks. I think that his comment was reckless and damaging. You know, let’s reverse the situation: Imagine if President Putin said at some public event that he intended to annex all of Ukraine, and that subsequently his subordinates tried to, quote-unquote, “walk back that comment.” I’m pretty sure the U.S. government would say, “Hey, wait a second. Putin is the guy in charge. His words are authoritative.”

So, I think Biden — this war has to end in a negotiated settlement. The terms have to be agreeable to President Zelensky. We have absolutely no business inserting U.S. views into what the war’s end should look like. We should butt out.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think it’s going to make it harder to negotiate? And how central do you think should be Biden’s role in a negotiation towards a ceasefire? We were just speaking with Yanis Varoufakis last week, the former finance minister of Greece, who said that, clearly, Biden should be playing a key role, could force ceasefire negotiations.

ANDREW BACEVICH: I’m not in agreement. You know, we are a party to this war only indirectly. There is no question about who is responsible for this catastrophe. There’s no question about who’s in the right. But it seems to me that the responsibility to negotiate with the Russians, to come to a settlement that is agreeable to Ukrainians, that belongs to President Zelensky. You know, there is this notion, again, carried over from probably the end of World War II, that the president of the United States functions as some kind of a global monarch. That kind of thinking is obsolete. And I think, actually, this episode illustrates the extent to which that kind of obsolete thinking complicates things. Biden should stay out and should keep his mouth shut.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go back to President Biden speaking on Saturday.

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: The Kremlin wants to portray NATO enlargement as an imperial project aimed at destabilizing Russia. Nothing is further from the truth. NATO is a defensive alliance. It has never sought the demise of Russia.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go first to Congressmember Ro Khanna on this issue and going back also to the original concerns of Russia of NATO’s expansion, nearly doubling in size, when promises had been made early on, from Republican and Democratic administrations, not to — what? — go an inch eastward, which it certainly has done since that time, and what this could — how this might look in a future ceasefire.

REP. RO KHANNA: First, let me just say that the American president does have a leadership role. I mean, we shouldn’t outsource diplomacy just to President Macron or Europe. Theodore Roosevelt famously brought peace between Russia and Japan. I agree that President Zelensky should have the say in what would be acceptable to the Ukrainian people, but our involvement in seeking aggressive diplomacy, in helping facilitate aggressive diplomacy, I think, is necessary and welcome.

My view on the war is that this was clearly Putin’s aggression. If you just read what Putin has written himself, he has a view, in an essay he published, of a greater Russia, of a greater Russia that he thinks Ukraine is part of, that he thinks Ukraine is central to. We can debate at some other point what — about NATO expansion. And there are obviously respected people, like Baker and Kennan and others, who have a view. But I don’t think that debate is healthy now, because Putin is grasping at straws to justify an invasion, that I think was clearly illegal and does not have to do with NATO but has to do with his view of a greater Russia.

AMY GOODMAN: Your response to this, as well, Andrew Bacevich?

ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, certainly, I agree, in the immediate sense, that Russia is the aggressor in this war. They started it. You know, there’s no getting around that. That said, if we have an interest in understanding how we came to this tragic circumstance, it seems to me that we have to acknowledge the recklessness of NATO expansion that happened in the wake of the Cold War contrary to promises made by senior American statesman, in the face of warnings by other senior American statesman. Simply to label NATO as a defensive alliance, I think, is fundamentally misleading. The expansion was aggressive, was undertaken at Russia’s expense, and has to be considered as one factor explaining how we got to where we are today. Again, to emphasize, that is not to justify Putin’s aggressive actions. But it seems to me that if we want to avoid these kinds of mistakes, we should at least try to understand how we got to the present circumstance.

AMY GOODMAN: Ro Khanna, the issue of NATO, the increasing militarization — I mean, you for a long time have been a fierce critic of increasing military budgets, but you seem to have taken a different approach when it comes to Ukraine. When you say we’ve got to shore up Zelensky right now, explain exactly what you mean.

REP. RO KHANNA: Well, I think here, this is a — in my view, a just war. I mean, I think that the Ukrainian sovereignty is under attack. Putin is clearly the aggressor. This is not a situation of an unjust or a war that has no purpose. This is the Ukrainian people fighting for their rights, for their sovereignty. And I do think that supporting Ukraine with the military assistance that we have provided, with the economic assistance that we provided, and having the punishing sanctions on Russia is the best chance to have a ceasefire. And that strategy, I think, has to end in a negotiated settlement. So I’m not for a war in any way with Russia. I’m not for a no-fly zone. I’m not for escalation with Russia. But I think that the best chance of getting to a negotiated settlement is to have the Ukrainians put up a tough fight, which they are, to have punishing sanctions, and at the same time pursue aggressive diplomacy.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Congressmember Khanna, I want to ask you about U.S. arms transfers to Ukraine. In 2018, you helped push Congress to pass a bill that included a provision barring arms, training or other assistance to the far-right Azov Battalion, which is now part, officially, of the Ukrainian National Guard. At the time, you said in a statement, quote, “White supremacy and neo-Nazism are unacceptable and have no place in our world. I am very pleased that the recently passed omnibus prevents the U.S. from providing arms and training assistance to the neo-Nazi Azov Battalion fighting in Ukraine. … This is just one of many reasons why lawmakers should be concerned about channeling huge amounts of weapons into this volatile conflict zone.” Now, that was back in 2018. Can you talk about the concerns you had about the Azov Battalion then and how it relates to U.S. policy today?

REP. RO KHANNA: Absolutely, Amy. I’m proud of that work, which was not just progressives but also moderates in Democrats. There’s no doubt that the Azov Battalion had neo-Nazi influences, and it may still have some of those influences. But it’s less than 1% of the entire Ukrainian army. Do I wish that none of the arms that we’re supplying get to the Azov Battalion? Of course I do. But the point is that right now the most urgent matter is the defense of Ukrainian sovereignty, and that’s why I support giving the Ukrainian people arms. Hopefully none of it gets to the Azov Battalion, but that is less than 1%. That shouldn’t prevent us from defending Zelensky in terms of providing support he needs to defend [Ukraine]. The world is complex. It’s never easy choices. My view right now is the urgency of the defense of Ukraine to get to a negotiated settlement outweighs the risk that some of those arms may end up in the hands of the Azov Battalion.

AMY GOODMAN: Are there any stipulations put in to prevent that from happening?

REP. RO KHANNA: Well, the 2018 law is still on the books. I’m sure that the administration is taking every precaution to not have that happen. But I think that the view is that we have to get them the anti-tank missile and anti-aircraft missiles that are necessary, which are, by the way, largely defensive missiles, which are largely to prevent Russia from taking over Ukraine. And I support the administration in that policy.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me ask Andrew Bacevich if you’re concerned that this massive influx of weapons will prolong the war?

ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, I agree with Congressman Khanna that we need to support Ukraine against Russia. And without having detailed understanding of the facts on the ground, it appears pretty clear that in addition to Ukrainian resolve, the introduction of foreign weapons, particularly anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons, have played a key role in ensuring that up to this point the Ukrainian defense effort has been successful. So, that’s the right policy.

Now, when we get to matters like the Azov Battalion, I think what we’re bumping into is the reality that even in a war such as this, where the line between good and evil seems to be pretty clear, there are all kinds of complicating factors that have to be acknowledged. And it seems to me that this is where, for example, the ill-advised comments by President Biden have to be part of the conversation. This is not simply a black-and-white war. And we will confront the grays in between when the war finally ends and we begin sorting through the wreckage caused by this catastrophe, and when we then begin to ask more seriously, “How did this come about?”

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