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The US is not seeking regime change in Russia, secretary of state Antony Blinken said on Sunday, a day after president Joe Biden apparently called for his Russian counterpart’s ousting.

Biden on Saturday condemned Russia’s president Vladimir Putin, demanding: “For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power” in remarks that drew condemnation from Moscow.

Speaking in Jerusalem on Sunday, Blinken told reporters that “the president, the White House, made the point last night that, quite simply, President Putin cannot be empowered to wage war or engage in aggression against Ukraine or anyone else”.

Biden’s speech came after three days of intense diplomacy in Europe seeking to stiffen western unity against Putin’s more than month-long invasion of Ukraine, which has triggered unprecedented financial sanctions against Moscow.

On Sunday, Russia’s military vowed to continue its invasion, appearing to be pursuing its threat to encircle Ukrainian forces in the country’s east while stepping up attacks on fuel and food depots across the country according to western military assessments.

Blinken’s comments were the second US attempt to walk back what appeared to be a call to oust Putin from power during a speech in Poland in which Biden warned transatlantic democracies to steel themselves for a “long fight ahead” to protect freedom in Europe.

The White House later said “the president’s point was that Putin cannot be allowed to exercise power over his neighbours or the region”, rather than a plan for regime change.

But the remark threatened to further inflame already febrile tensions with Moscow, where Putin has justified his invasion by claiming the US was using Ukraine as a platform to destroy Russia’s statehood.

Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s spokesman, told the state-run Tass agency that “these personal insults narrow the window of opportunity for our bilateral relations [to improve] under the current [US] administration”.

Blinken said: “As you know, and as you have heard us say repeatedly, we do not have a strategy of regime change in Russia — or anywhere else, for that matter.”

EU officials have previously denied that unseating Putin is their target, stating that sanctions are not aimed at provoking regime change. A European Commission spokesperson on Sunday declined to comment on Biden’s remark.

After its initial plan for a blitzkrieg invasion foundered on fierce Ukrainian resistance, Russia appears to have dropped its effort to depose Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky in favour of a war of attrition, according to western officials.

Russia said on Friday that it was shifting its focus to the eastern Donbas region after claiming to have completed “the first phase” of its invasion. Annexing Donbas, where Moscow started a low-burning separatist conflict after it seized the Crimean peninsula in 2014, would allow Russia to consolidate territorial gains.

“Russian forces appear to be concentrating their effort to attempt the encirclement of Ukrainian forces directly facing the separatist regions in the east of the country, advancing from the direction of Kharkiv in the north and Mariupol in the south,” the UK ministry of defence said on Sunday.

It said fighting in northern Ukraine “remains largely static with local Ukrainian counter-attacks hampering Russian attempts to reorganise their forces”.

The governor of Sumy, a region on the northern border with Russia, said Ukraine’s forces had retaken two towns on the supply route to the regional capital.

As Biden was speaking on Saturday Russia carried out long-range missile strikes on a fuel depot and repair plant in Lviv, 70km from Ukraine’s western border with Poland, as well as a depot with air defence missiles in Kyiv.

“With these blows, the aggressor was sending greetings to President Biden,” said Lviv’s mayor Andriy Sadoviy. “The whole world needs to understand that the threat is extremely serious and no one knows [Russia’s] next plans.”

Vadym Denysenko, an adviser to Ukraine’s interior ministry, said Russia had begun targeting food and fuel storage facilities. He said Russia had started to build up new groups of forces near the border, suggesting it was planning new assaults on Ukraine, according to Reuters.

Also on Sunday, the leader of the Luhansk People’s Republic, one of two Moscow-backed separatist groups in Donbas, said the group could soon hold a referendum on joining Russia — a possible precursor to the formal annexation of more Ukrainian territory by Moscow.

Additional reporting by Andres Schipani in Lviv

Source: This post first appeared on Duk News

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