President Joe Biden, left, and his Polish counterpart Andrzej Duda shake hands during a military welcome at the Presidential Palace in Warsaw on March 26, 2022. (AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)

WARSAW (AP) — U.S. President Joe Biden said Saturday that Vladimir Putin “cannot stay in power,” in a sweeping rhetorical escalation against the Russian leader following his brutal invasion of Ukraine.

Although Biden’s statements went around the world, the White House tried to clarify shortly after the president finished his speech in Poland that he was not promoting a change of government in Russia.

A White House official said Biden was “not discussing Putin’s power in Russia or regime change.” The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Biden’s message is that “Putin cannot be allowed to wield power over his neighbors or the region.”

The White House declined to answer whether Biden’s comments about Putin were part of the written speech.

“For God’s sake, this man cannot stay in power,” Biden said at the end of a speech in the Polish capital that capped a four-day tour of Europe.

Biden has frequently expressed the need to ensure that the invasion of the Kremlin, now in its second month, becomes a “strategic failure” for Putin and has called the Russian leader a “war criminal.” But prior to his comments in Warsaw, the US president had never said that Putin should not rule Russia. Hours earlier, as he was about to meet with Ukrainian refugees, Biden called Putin a “butcher.”

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told The Associated Press that “it is not up to the president of the United States or the Americans to decide who will remain in power in Russia.”

“Only the Russians, who voted for their president, can decide that,” Peskov added. “And of course it is improper for the President of the United States to make such statements.”

Asked about the impact of such remarks by Biden on US-Russia relations, Peskov described it as “extremely negative.”

“With every such statement he makes, and Biden now prefers to make them on a daily basis, he is closing the window of opportunity in our bilateral relations under the current administration,” Peskov said.

During the week, the Russian government warned John Sullivan, the US ambassador to Moscow, that diplomatic relations were at risk due to the painful economic sanctions that Washington has imposed on Russia. On Thursday, the Russians declared about a dozen US embassy diplomats persona non grata, paving the way for their expulsion. With the embassy already short of staff, US officials have signaled that further reductions would make it difficult, if not nearly impossible, to operate.

Biden also used his speech to vehemently defend liberal democracy and the NATO military alliance, adding that Europe must arm itself for a long fight against Russian aggression.

While Biden was meeting with refugees, Russia continued its attack on Ukrainian cities. Explosions were heard in Lviv, the closest large city to Poland and a destination for internally displaced people that has largely not been the scene of attacks.

The images of Biden comforting the refugees and calling for Western unity contrasted with the dramatic scenes of fires and black smoke so close to the Polish border, another shocking double image of the war.

In what the White House called an important speech, Biden spoke in front of the Royal Castle, one of Warsaw’s landmark buildings, which was badly damaged during World War II.

Citing Polish Pope John Paul II and anti-communist dissident and former president Lech Walesa, he warned that Putin’s invasion of Ukraine could bring “decades of war.”

“We must face this battle with clear eyes. This battle will not be won in days or months,” Biden said.

About 1,000 people attended, including some of the Ukrainian refugees who have fled to Poland.

“We must commit now, be in this fight for the long term,” Biden stressed.

After meeting with refugees at the National Stadium, Biden praised their spirit and resolve in the wake of Russia’s deadly invasion, as he hugged mothers and children and pledged lasting support from Western powers.

Biden listened carefully as the children described the dangerous flight with their parents from Ukraine. With a wide smile, she picked up a little girl in a pink coat and told her that she reminded her of her granddaughters.

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Madhani reported from Washington. Associated Press writers Matthew Lee and Monika Scislowska in Warsaw contributed to this report.

President Joe Biden, left, and his Polish counterpart Andrzej Duda shake hands during a military welcome at the Presidential Palace in Warsaw on March 26, 2022. (AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)
US President Joe Biden delivers a speech at the Royal Castle in Warsaw, Poland, Saturday, March 26, 2022. He said regarding Russian President Vladimir Putin, "For God's sake, this man can't stay in power.".  (AP Photo/Petr David Josek)
US President Joe Biden delivers a speech at the Royal Castle in Warsaw, Poland, Saturday, March 26, 2022. He said of Russian President Vladimir Putin, “for God’s sake, this man cannot stay in power.” (AP Photo/Petr David Josek)

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