The ending of his speech dominated the headlines.

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, ad-free, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”

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Today's read: 12 minutes.

President Biden's speech in Poland. Plus, a question about the Ukrainian refugees fleeing to Russia.

Screenshot: The Independent
Screenshot: The Independent 

Clarification.

This isn't really "correction" territory, but last week we listed Eliot Cohen's essay in The Atlantic under "What the left is saying." Cohen, in fact, is considered a "neoconservative" or traditional Republican voice in politics, not someone on the "left" side of the spectrum, and his argument about Ukraine winning the war should have appeared under "What the right is saying."

We apologize for the mix up!


On Friday...

I wrote about my evolving feelings on military funding, and how the war in Ukraine has me questioning some of my past beliefs. This piece generated a lot of reader responses — more than any I've written in weeks — so I wanted to plug it here. It is a subscribers-only post, which means you have to become a paying supporter of Tangle to read it.

You can find the piece by clicking here.


Quick hits.

  1. Ukraine signaled it was open to negotiating a neutral stance in peace talks with Russia and pursuing a compromise in the eastern Donbas region of Ukraine. (The negotiations)
  2. Russia may be shifting its strategy in Ukraine, refocusing its efforts on controlling eastern parts of the country rather than taking the capital of Kyiv. (The shift)
  3. Republican U.S. Rep. Jeff Fortenberry of Nebraska says he will resign after he was convicted of lying to the FBI. (The resignation)
  4. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) said he backs Ketanji Brown Jackson for the Supreme Court, all but assuring her confirmation. (The vote)
  5. Former President Donald Trump and his adult children have agreed to sit for depositions in a lawsuit filed by investors who say the family conned them into making bad investments in businesses the Trumps were promoting. (The deposition)

Our 'Quick Hits' section is created in partnership with Ground News, a website and app that rates the bias of news coverage and news outlets.


Today's topic.

Biden's speech in Warsaw. On Saturday, the president traveled to Poland to deliver what was billed as the most important speech of his presidency yet. Standing about 200 miles from  Ukraine’s border, Biden said the war in Ukraine represented a "battle for democracy" and framed it as part of a larger, longer struggle of people rising up to defend their freedoms throughout world history. He emphasized that NATO had tried to avoid war, reminded the world that Putin had pledged he wasn't going to invade, noted that Russia's economy was now collapsing thanks to the unity of the West, and repeated the United States' pledge to take in 100,000 Ukrainian refugees.

Biden also warned Vladimir Putin not to "even think about moving on one single inch of NATO territory." And he insisted that the world must steel itself for what is ahead, cautioning that the war in Ukraine may not be over in weeks or even months, but years.

"Time and again, history shows that it’s from the darkest moments that the greatest progress follows," he said. "And history shows this is the task of our time, the task of this generation."

Perhaps most notably, though, was what happened at the end. As Biden wrapped up his speech, he delivered a brief ad-libbed comment to the audience: "For God’s sake, this man [Putin] cannot remain in power."

Immediately, the comments became the headline from the speech, with reporters asking if Biden was calling for "regime change" in Russia or threatening Putin directly. In the minutes after the speech, the White House was already playing clean up, as one administration official told reporters that Biden'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." The next day, Antony Blinken, Biden's secretary of state, clarified the comments again at a news conference, saying "We do not have a strategy of regime change in Russia, or anywhere else for that matter."

You can read a full transcript of his speech here. And our most recent coverage of the war in Ukraine here.

Below, we'll take a look at some reactions to the speech from the left and right, then my take.


What the left is saying.

  • The left mostly framed the speech as a historic triumph and praised Biden for uniting the West.
  • Some said Biden’s comment was the obvious position to take.
  • Others worry that Russia and the United States are stumbling toward a hot war, which would threaten the entire planet.

Frida Ghitis called it a "historic" and impassioned speech.

"It was the culmination of a trip in which he built up the West's response to Russian President Vladimir Putin's assault. He linked Putin's attack on a democratic neighbor to events we have seen elsewhere, as 'the forces of autocracy have revived all across the globe,'" she wrote. "Biden's mission in Europe this week had one overarching purpose: prevent Russian President Vladimir Putin from winning his war in Ukraine. And do it without triggering Putin's worst instincts, which could turn the war in Ukraine into the prelude to something even more catastrophic. But Biden's Warsaw speech showed he believes Putin's defeat can reverse the autocratic tide washing across the world in recent years.

"It's a tightrope walk requiring exquisite balance. We will not know if Biden has succeeded immediately, but what is clear is that Biden is moving forward -- something that cannot be said about Putin's forces stuck in Ukraine," Ghitis added. "And as Biden explains his plan and enlists European support for it, his tone has been light on arrogance and unwavering in conviction. For months, Biden has maintained that the right approach to handling this crisis is to bolster Ukraine's defenses, rally America's allies and the international community and call out Putin's violations. He has done all this while trying to keep the United States and NATO out of direct combat with Russia."

In USA Today, Jill Lawrence said Biden was stating the obvious.

"When you call someone a butcher, because his army has turned the sovereign democratic nation of Ukraine into a hellscape of slaughtered civilians and leveled cities for no reason except hunger for power and control, do you want that butcher to remain in power? No," she wrote. "I found his words bracing and was surprised to see the White House immediately start walking back the apparently spontaneous addition to the closing of Biden’s speech in Warsaw... Why walk it back? I wondered. Let people debate what Biden meant and interpret it how they want.

"An argument quickly erupted on Twitter and beyond between people enormously relieved that Biden had said what they were thinking, and people who might agree with him but believe it was at best risky and at worst dangerous for him to say such a thing. You want Putin to be thinking about making a deal. Enraging him isn’t the way to encourage that, the thinking goes," she wrote. "Especially when he seems to be shifting his objectives and his ground and could be on the verge of … something. My heart is with the argument on the other side: Let’s stop saying what we won’t do or can’t do or don’t mean. Let’s say what we really mean and make Putin wonder what we will do."

Glenn Greenwald warned about the state of the war and the possibility of the world's two great nuclear powers coming to blows.

"And all of those preexisting dangers are, in turn, severely exacerbated by an American president who so often is too age-addled to speak clearly or predictably," he wrote. "That condition is inherently dangerous, made all the more so by the fact that it leaves him vulnerable to manipulation by the Democratic Party's national security advisers who will never forget 2016 and seem more intent than ever on finally attaining vengeance against Putin, no matter the risks. Speaking to U.S. troops in Poland on Friday, a visibly exhausted and rambling President Biden — after extensive travel, time-zone hopping, protracted meetings and speeches — appeared to tell U.S. troops that they were on their way to see first-hand the resistance of Ukrainians, meaning they were headed into Ukraine.

"But accidental or unintentional escalation — from misperception or miscommunication — is always at least as serious a danger for war as the deliberate intention to directly engage militarily," Greenwald added. "So do the grave dangers from Biden's sudden yet emphatic declaration on Saturday that Putin 'cannot remain in power' — the classic language of declared U.S. policy of regime change. Whether deliberate or unintentional, these escalatory statements — particularly when combined with the U.S.’s escalatory actions — are dangerous beyond what can be described... Whatever else is true, the U.S. and Russia are now in waters uncharted since the Cuban missile crisis."


What the right is saying.

  • The right criticized Biden for his comments, saying it was an unacceptable gaffe.
  • Some suggested the president can't be trusted to speak publicly in wartime.
  • Others said the comments risked yet another escalation in the war.

In The New York Post, Michael Goodwin said the speech was a "catastrophe."

"Joe Biden’s call-to-arms speech in Poland was long on soaring rhetoric about the virtues of democracy but woefully short on what more the West will do to help Ukraine defeat the Russian invasion. But by the time he got to the finish, most of that was forgotten," Goodwin wrote. "What mattered most and what will be remembered for a long time was a single line the president of the United States said about the president of Russia: 'For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power.' In the context of the speech and the slaughter of Ukrainian civilians, it’s impossible to understand that line as anything other than a call for regime change, a move that would dramatically raise the stakes with Russia at a time when Biden has been at pains to lower them.

"How in the hell can a line like that, so explicit that it could potentially lead to World War III, get into a presidential address if the plain meaning wasn’t the intent? Even if the speech writers screwed up, didn’t anybody in the White House, State Department or Pentagon read the final draft?" Goodwin wrote. "This was at least the fourth time on the three-day trip that something Biden said had to be walked back, cleaned up, clarified or refuted. No, there will not be food shortages in America, despite what he suggested. No, American troops in Poland are not headed to Ukraine, despite what Biden told them. No, the United States will not use chemical weapons, even if Russia does, despite the president seeming to threaten it would."

In The Wall Street Journal, James Freeman said the president "should avoid public speaking."

"Some issues are just too important to be left to an unscripted Joe Biden," Freeman wrote. "This is not CNN and your humble correspondent is not a doctor so this column will not be offering a long-distance diagnosis of the president’s mental health or an assessment of how his cognition compares to that of other world leaders. But these are dangerous times and we would all be much safer if Mr. Biden would make greater use of prepared statements on subjects such as, for example, weapons of mass destruction.

"Two months after a bumbling press conference in which Mr. Biden implied that a 'minor incursion' by Russia into Ukraine might be tolerable to the U.S. and its allies, the President flew to Europe this week and somehow ended up taking questions from reporters at NATO headquarters in Brussels," Freeman said. "Yes, it’s important for all of us to be able to hear from our elected officials and to assess the content of their remarks as well as the skill and conviction with which they advocate for their policies. But this particular elected official does not appear to be up to the task. While we consider the implications, Mr. Biden should try to say as little as possible in public during an international crisis."

In The Atlantic, Tom Nichols praised many of Biden's actions but called this an "unforced error."

"Joe Biden has been a model of restraint during the most serious global crisis in nearly 60 years, and thank goodness for that," Nichols wrote. "He has provided assistance to Ukraine while keeping NATO together against the possibility of a Russian attack against the alliance. He has resisted calls to engage in high-risk escalatory moves—such as a no-fly zone—while inflicting damage on the Russian economy and making clear the depth of America’s outrage at Vladimir Putin’s war of conquest... Biden’s staff lamely offered that the president was saying 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.

"What Biden was doing, of course, was being Joe Biden. He was speaking for all of us, from the heart," he added. "One of the more endearing things about the president—at least for those of us who admire him—is that he has almost no inner monologue and regularly engages in the kind of gaffe where a politician says something that is impolitic but true. This was not the time for such a moment, and even those who think Biden has exhibited sterling leadership during this crisis should admit that the president’s remarks were an unforced error. Putin has already made himself a pariah in the West, and though Biden has been right to call Putin a thug, a butcher, and a war criminal, it is another thing entirely to use language that could be misconstrued by both the American public and the Kremlin as a suggestion that the United States is interested in changing the Russian regime."


My take.

The way I see it, there are three ways to read the Biden comments that dominated this story: One is that he was just clumsily expressing the hope that Putin falls, something more akin to a prayer than a threat. Another is that he accidentally said some quiet part out loud, expressing what may be a new U.S. policy being whispered about behind closed doors to the world (this seems the least likely to me). And the third is that, in his mind, he intended it as a call to the world and to the power centers in Russia — but simply did not think about the ramifications those words would have.

Regardless of where you land, it isn't good. My initial reaction to the comments was not that it was a call for regime change, but that it was just a guttural, off-script expression that Putin can't be left to his own devices. Even if that's the case, which I think is best-case-scenario, it was a stupid thing to say on the world stage. In a worst-case scenario, Putin could view those words as some kind of regime change threat and act accordingly. Even without that, he could simply repurpose the comments as propaganda and show them to his people as "proof" the United States is hellbent on killing or replacing him.

President Biden, of course, knows this. “The words of a president matter,” Biden said throughout his campaign for president in 2020. “They can move markets. They can send our brave men and women to war. They can bring peace.” That was how he used to criticize former President Trump for the troubling, off-the-cuff comments he would make. And he was right. They do matter. Which is why these ad-libbed comments can escalate a war or muddy our own intentions (whether that is de-escalation or a pledge not to pursue regime change).

Of course, there's another voice in my head, too. One aptly expressed by the reporter Terrell Jermaine Starr, who said, "I'm more concerned about Putin, who has literally called for regime change in Kyiv and whose army is raping and killing.”

Regardless, it's a tough spot for Biden's staff to be in. The suggestion that he should stop speaking publicly is a bit overwrought; and of course if he ever did that, people saying he shouldn't speak publicly would then (rightly) criticize him for "hiding in his basement" from the press. Still, Biden can no longer afford these kinds of missteps. For anyone worried that sending additional fighter jets to Poland (something I supported) or instituting a no-fly zone (something I’m quite wary of) could provoke Putin, it’s safe to assume he’d interpret a threat of regime change as an order of magnitude more provocative.

The timing was doubly troubling because the comments come as Russia might be regrouping and adjusting its strategy, which is the kind of moment in war where the possibility for de-escalation increases. The remark overshadowed an otherwise strong speech, one where this moment was properly framed in the context of world history and the high stakes of what is happening were accurately weighted.

My favorite part of the speech was Biden's direct plea to Russians:

"I’ve worked with Russian leaders for decades.  I sat across the negotiating table going all the way back to Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin to talk arms control at the height of the Cold War. I’ve always spoken directly and honestly to you, the Russian people. Let me say this, if you’re able to listen: You, the Russian people, are not our enemy. I refuse to believe that you welcome the killing of innocent children and grandparents or that you accept hospitals, schools, maternity wards that, for God’s sake, are being pummeled with Russian missiles and bombs; or cities being surrounded so that civilians cannot flee; supplies cut off and attempting to starve Ukrainians into submission."

It's unfortunate that much of the speech — the calls for Western unity, the framing of the fight for freedom, the reminder of Putin's lies and war crimes, the humanizing of Russian citizens and the expressions of U.S. support for Ukraine — will go largely unnoticed. But the president has nobody to blame but himself.

Have thoughts about "my take?" You can reply to this email and write in or leave a comment if you're a subscriber.


Your questions, answered.

Q: What is the story about tens or hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians emigrating [to] Russia during the Ukrainian invasion?

— Anonymous, Amityville, New York

Tangle: I have also wondered about this group of refugees — which some news agencies have estimated amounts to more than 270,000 people — who have gone to Russia. There seem to be a few things at play here.

The first is that, for many people, the migration is probably "normal" in the sense that some of these refugees are undoubtedly just fleeing to the nearest safe spot. If you live in eastern Ukraine, and have connections in Russia (as many Ukrainians surely still do), then crossing into Russia may be a logical thing to do.

But the other story is much darker and more upsetting. For starters, reporters on the ground have documented several instances where Russia has opened up corridors only for entry into Russia. In other words, Ukrainians fleeing the war have been funneled directly into Russia. We've seen Russia announce safe civilian corridors to other parts of Europe and then bomb them, and so the reports on the ground that they would be creating corridors only into Russia seem quite plausible to me.

Reuters has also reported that 15,000 Ukrainians were "deported" to Russia, and others have claimed thousands were taken by force. President Zelensky said some 2,000 children were "redirected" to Russia when soldiers came to evacuate the city of Mariupol, which the Russian military has been systematically destroying over the last few weeks.

In fact, Lyudmyla Denisova, Ukraine’s ombudsperson, said 402,000 people — including 84,000 children — have been deported against their will to Russia or Russian territory. According to The Guardian, some Ukrainians have been deported as far as the Russian island of Sakhalin in the Pacific Ocean. One Ukrainian refugee spoke to the BBC about a group of 40,000 refugees now in Russian territory: "All of us were taken forcibly."

It's hard to verify these reports in a time like this. Obviously, no refugee is a refugee by choice, but I think it is clear that many of the Ukrainian refugees who ended up in Russia did not end up there on purpose. And while it doesn't account for reports of hundreds of thousands of people, we have had news agencies and the United Nations document several dozen cases of civilians being abducted. All this is to say: I don't think Russia deserves any credit for humanitarian aid in a war they started, and I'm not sure exactly how we can know which of these refugees chose Russia and which have been forced there by far darker forces.

Want to ask a question? You can reply to this email and write in (it goes straight to my inbox) or fill out this form.


A story that matters.

President Biden is planning to release a new budget on Monday, and it's already generating some headlines. Apparently, he will propose a new tax of at least 20% on households worth more than $100 million, a plan the White House says will reduce federal deficits by $1 trillion over a decade. The tax would apply to the top .01% of households with half the expected revenue coming from homes worth over $1 billion. "The minimum tax would effectively prevent the wealthiest sliver of America from paying lower rates than families who think of themselves as middle class, while helping to generate revenues to fuel Biden’s domestic ambitions and keep the deficit in check relative to the U.S. economy," the Associated Press reports.


Numbers.

  • 7 in 10. The number of Americans who have low confidence in President Biden's ability to deal with Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
  • 40%. Biden's approval rating in a new NBC News poll, the lowest of his presidency.
  • 55%. The percentage of Americans who say they disapprove of Biden's presidency.
  • 68%. When asked if Biden should focus most on inflation and the economy or ending the war in Ukraine, the percentage of Americans who say inflation and the economy.
  • 46. The number of senators whose position on Ketanji Brown Jackson is unknown, according to a Washington Post tracker.

Have a nice day.

Scientists in England are using seeds from a 1,000-year-old oak tree to help plant an experimental "super forest." The Blenheim Estate has received a government grant of about one million euros to plant 270,000 trees using the seeds of forests born in medieval times to try to make it happen. In 2020, the massive oaks, some over 1,000 years old, produced a bumper crop of acorns. Foresters harvested those acorns, brought them to a nursery, then planted them in pots and let them grow. "The saplings take several years to grow big enough to be planted out in the forest, but experts think it is worth the wait to harness the pedigree of the Blenheim oaks," BBC reported. The native oak trees can support hundreds of species of insects, birds and fungi, and will be leaned on as the United Kingdom ups its efforts to reforest the country. BBC has the story.


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