Joe Biden Just Provided Putin With the Off-Ramp Needed to Avoid Nuclear War

President Joe Biden may have provided Russian President Vladimir Putin with an off-ramp to end the war in Ukraine and avoid escalation that could lead to nuclear conflict—but it's not clear if Putin will take it.

Biden suggested in an interview with CNN's Jake Tapper on Tuesday that Putin "could just flat leave, and still probably hold his position together in Russia," as questions have arisen about whether the Kremlin resident can stay in power without winning some kind of victory.

Biden said Putin might be able to tell the Russian people "that this something that he thought made sense, but now he's accomplished what he wanted to do, and it's time to bring Russians home."

Some observers have seen this as Biden indicating he would allow Putin to declare a face-saving victory and tolerate him remaining in power, although White House officials have denied there has ever been a U.S. policy of regime change.

Newsweek has asked the White House and the Russian foreign ministry about Biden's words.

Combination Image Biden and Putin
In this combination image, US President Joe Biden at the White House in Washington, DC, on October 11, 2022. and Russian President Vladimir Putin pictured on October 10, 2022. Putin may not be willing to back down in Ukraine. Getty

These comments came ahead of the publication of the Biden administration's new National Security Strategy (NSS) on Wednesday, which directly addressed potential nuclear threats from Russia as well as competition with China over the next decade.

"Russia's conventional military will have been weakened, which will likely increase Moscow's reliance on nuclear weapons in its military planning," the NSS said.

"The United States will not allow Russia, or any power, to achieve its objectives through using, or threatening to use, nuclear weapons," the strategy blueprint read.

Putin has previously said he would use "all available means to protect Russia and our people" and Russian opposition leader Nikolay Rybakov has warned that the West shouldn't underestimate Putin's willingness to use nuclear weapons.

"I think the West should realize that if Vladimir Putin has said that he would like to 'use all available means," then he means he will absolutely use any means to reach his goals," Rybakov told Newsweek this week,

Political experts who spoke to Newsweek suggested that Putin is unlikely to back down and that Biden's comments about his future may not be helpful.

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Putin Doesn't Listen

The Russian president has spent years consolidating his own power and he's unlikely to listen to calls for him to take a step back now, according to Mark Shanahan, an associate professor at the University of Surrey in the U.K. and co-editor of The Trump Presidency: From Campaign Trail to World Stage.

"Biden's comments might offer an off-ramp to the Putin caravan, but it's not one the Russian is likely to consider any time soon," Shanahan told Newsweek.

"He has effectively been in power now in Russia for 22 years and over that time has systematically removed all opposition to his rule and all dissenting voices from around the Kremlin table. Thus, however badly he must know his 'Special Operation' is going, he doesn't listen to anyone and refuses to contemplate anything other than, at worst, a partial success that he can claim as victory," he added.

Ukrainian Folly

While President Biden told Tapper on Tuesday he believes Putin is a "rational actor" who has miscalculated in Ukraine, questions remain about the Russian president's mental state and what he might do next.

"So while Biden may be offering the logical solution to a war that's unwinnable by Russia, it's far more likely Putin will choose to sacrifice many thousands more of Russia's sons rather than lose face, both in the eyes of the west, but more so at home where he holds the country in a totalitarian grip," Shanahan said.

Shanahan argued that so far Biden "has played a smart game—definitely on the side of right—but keeping the war at arm's length."

"It will grind the Russians down," he said. "But with Putin's mental stability questionable, it is most likely that his horrific Ukrainian folly will cease only when the return of zinc coffins to the Motherland becomes too much for the nation to bear, and the Russians themselves forcibly remove their leader from his blood-drenched road."

Putin's Future

Earlier this year, White House officials were forced to clarify the administration's position after Biden said Putin "cannot remain in power" during a visit to Poland.

Officials said that regime change was not the Biden administration's policy.

David A. Bateman, an associate professor of government at Cornell University, told Newsweek that Biden "casually commenting" on Putin's future may not be helpful.

"On the one hand, Biden seems to be just stating the obvious. Putin could leave now, and he could stay in power. It might also rain on Wednesday. It's not clear what one has to do with the other," Bateman said.

"Perhaps Biden is just casually commenting on what seems to be growing discontent in Russia—among hawks, who always want to bomb somewhere into oblivion, but also among those who quite reasonably don't want to be or have their loved ones be on the front lines of the bombing," he said.

Bateman said he didn't know "if Putin has more to worry from one source or the other, or both."

"But I don't think Biden—as president—should be casually commenting it," he went on. "It was a similar line months ago that seemed to suggest the U.S. had a policy of regime change in Russia, which the administration had to frantically walk back."

"I don't think that's the right way to interpret Biden's most recent comments, but it's easy to see how they could be interpreted that way," Bateman said.

"Biden should stop casually commenting on Putin's future outside of an established international legal framework," he went on. "And if it's not casual, but a deliberate signal about a U.S. policy of regime change, then that is a conversation Biden should be having with the U.S. people first and foremost."

Update 10/13/2022, 10:50 a.m. ET: This article was updated with additional context around President Joe Biden's remarks.