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Biden's regime change comment should have been more nuanced, Sen. Reed says

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to focus in now on President Biden's speech in Warsaw and the possible U.S. response to the war as it drags on. Biden laid out the stakes, calling it a, quote, "test of all time" between democratic societies and the forces of autocracy. His prepared remarks concluded on notes of optimism.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: 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.

MARTIN: But the president did not end his remarks there. Instead, he added the following.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

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

MARTIN: Nine words, ad-libbed - a wholesale change in U.S. policy just like that, or so it seemed, something not even Biden's closest aides had anticipated. In a statement a short while later, the White House tried to walk it back, insisting, 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." Still, those are the words that reverberated after the speech was over. We are joined now by Democratic Senator Jack Reed of Rhode Island, chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Senator, thanks for being here this morning.

JACK REED: Thank you, Rachel.

MARTIN: Should the U.S. be agitating publicly for Vladimir Putin to be removed from office?

REED: No. And I think the president's comments were consistent with his view about Putin personally, which he's made no qualms about calling him a war criminal and a butcher, et cetera. I don't think it surprises Putin at all that he would say that. But I think a more nuanced approach would have been better.

MARTIN: So now, this is significant, though, because European allies are scrambling to pick up the pieces after this remark. What are the real-world implications of the president of the United States saying that the leader of Russia should go?

REED: Well the administration quite promptly - and indeed, the president when he was leaving mass - indicated that, no, he does not intend for regime change. That's never been part of our calculation, nor NATO's calculation. I think the Russians understand that from the issue of what we've done and how we've tried to do it.

MARTIN: Senator Reed, the White House has mentioned, without citing evidence, that Russia may be considering the use of chemical and biological weapons against Ukraine. How real is that threat to you?

REED: Well, it's very real because they have the capability of doing that. And initially, Putin made all sorts of outrageous claims about weapons of mass destruction. So we have to be prepared, and our intelligence is extensively focused on this possibility. And I think that preparation and also the implications that we've already given that we would not treat this lightly is critical, I think, to pre-empting emptying it.

MARTIN: I want to play a clip for you. Yesterday on NBC's "Meet The Press," Ohio Republican Senator Rob Portman said the U.S. does need to state the consequences of what the response would be to a chemical weapons attack in Ukraine. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MEET THE PRESS")

ROB PORTMAN: I think the use of chemical weapons against innocent civilians is something where we have to draw a red line. And we need to do it now, and we need to do it with our NATO allies. Recall, we did this in Syria and did not honor the red line. This time we got to be darn sure that what we're doing is something that will be backed up by us, by our NATO allies. And I do think that's a red line.

MARTIN: Do you agree? I mean, those words are significant, right? The red line carries a lot of symbolic weight. But if you do agree, what should the consequences be?

REED: Well, first of all, I think Rob's comments about we have to do it with the support of our NATO allies are absolutely critical. And I would think that the administration has been working diligently to get a common position. But I think also, too, they are thinking of a range of options if there were a chemical attack. One of the problems with red lines is, as Rob also indicated, if you don't fulfill your threat, then you've lost a lot of influence, and you've lost a lot of credibility. So I think they're carefully trying to balance - how do we deter them and do so with the entire NATO force behind us?

MARTIN: What do you think is the most likely outcome of this situation? I mean, is it something like the head of the Ukrainian military intelligence has suggested, that Russia would agree to splitting the country in two, taking the eastern provinces? Would that be feasible?

REED: I don't know how feasible it'd be, but I think it would be one of the proposals that would be seriously floated. Again, I think this is where the Ukrainians also get a vote. And so much depends upon what they're doing on the ground. If they continue to effectively upset Russian plans and do so in dramatic manners, Russia is not in a very good bargaining position. And that, I hope, is the situation. I think, honestly, that what - the best way is to find that off-ramp where there is some cover for Putin. I think there's been discussions about, would the Ukrainians agree not to join NATO but would still expect and demand to receive support from Western allies militarily?

MARTIN: But do you really think that's all Putin is really after, Ukraine's agreement not to join NATO, at this point?

REED: I think he was after, initially, the fall of the Ukraine in several days, then moving the pressure on to the Baltic. He was not going to stop. And now he has been forced back dramatically by courageous forces. And so his demands, I think, are much, much less.

MARTIN: What is left for the U.S. in terms of leverage? Because the sanctions have kept coming, and none of it seems to have moved Putin.

REED: The sanctions will take a while to work. That's one of the difficulties of imposing sanctions. I think we have to continue to support the Ukrainian military forces with air defense systems, with anti-tank systems. I think we have to continue to support them on a NATO-wide basis with intelligence. We also have to provide the ammunition and the basic stocks of supplies they need so that they can continue the fight. And we hope we get to a position where forces within Russia, either because of economic deprivation or because of continued loss of life and a stalemate, decide that it's time to seek a negotiated agreement.

MARTIN: Senator Jack Reed of Rhode Island, chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Thank you for your time this morning.

REED: Thank you, Rachel, very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.