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Putin’s future ‘up to the Russian people’, says UK minister after Biden calls for removal

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Regime change in Russia would be “up to the Russian people”, a cabinet minister in Boris Johnson’s government has said following the furore over Joe Biden’s remarks about Vladimir Putin’s removal.

The British government distanced itself from the US president’s apparent call for regime change in Russia after he said in an impassioned speech that Putin “cannot remain in power".

The White House has scrambled to row back the US president’s remarks, insisting that Biden was “not discussing Putin’s power in Russia, or regime change” with the comments made in Poland.

Asked if the UK government agreed with Joe Biden that Vladimir Putin “cannot remain in power”, Nadhim Zahawi said: “I think that’s up to the Russian people.”

Pressed further about the US president’s comments on regime change, the education secretary told Sky News’ Sophy Ridge On Sunday: “It’s an illegal invasion of Ukraine and that must end, and I think that’s what the president was talking about.”

Pressed again if Mr Biden was wrong to say what he did, Mr Zahawi said: “No, what I’m saying to you is the White House has been very clear on this, the president gave a very powerful speech on this.”

He added: “I think both the United States and the United Kingdom agree that it’s up to the Russian people to decide who should be governing them.”

The cabinet minister said the Russian people “are pretty fed up with what is happening in Ukraine, this illegal invasion, the destruction of their own livelihoods, their economy is collapsing around them”, adding: “I think the Russian people will decide the fate of Putin and his cronies.”

But he declined to criticise Mr Biden, unlike Tobias Ellwood, the senior Conservative MP who chairs the Commons Defence Committee, who said Mr Putin will now “spin this, dig in and fight harder”.

Mr Zahawi also backed foreign secretary Liz Truss’s view that sanctions cannot be lifted from Russia until there is a full withdrawal of troops from Ukraine.

He told Sky News: “I think the Russian illegal invasion has to end and the Russian army has to leave the Ukraine, and it’s up to the Ukrainian people, they must be very much the ones who decide what that peace looks like.”

Ms Truss said sanctions against Russian oligarchs, banks and businesses could be lifted if Putin ends his invasion and commits to “no further aggression”.

The foreign secretary told the Sunday Telegraph a “negotiations unit” had been established in the Foreign Office to aid possible peace talks – but warned that that the threat of “snapback sanctions” would be retained if the Russian president did attack again.

The White House has scrambled to play down Biden’s remarks in Poland on Saturday. “For God’s sake this man cannot remain in power,” the US president said at the close of his speech of the Russian president he earlier described as a “butcher”.

But a White House official tried to argue that the US president was only making the point that the Russian leader “cannot be allowed to exercise power over his neighbours or the region … He was not discussing Putin’s power in Russia, or regime change”.

The Kremlin responded: “That’s not for Biden to decide. The president of Russia is elected by Russians.”

The senior Labour MP Dame Margaret Beckett said many people would sympathise with the sentiments that led Biden to say that Putin “cannot remain in power”.

Dame Margaret said: “I rather like what we’ve seen in Joe Biden. I know that he gets a lot of criticism but he strikes me as being somebody who has strong feelings and is inclined to then just voice them.

“I’m sure that his staff and the people around him are right to say America’s not calling for regime change, but equally I think many people will sympathise with the sentiments that led him to say what he did.”

Richard Haass, a veteran US diplomat who is president of the Council on Foreign Relations think tank, said Mr Biden’s remarks made “a dangerous situation more dangerous” when the strategy should be focused on de-escalation.

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