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Russian President Vladimir Putin enters a hall to meet with Russia's medal-winning athletes of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games and members of the country's Paralympic team at the Kremlin in Moscow on April 26.NATALIA KOLESNIKOVA/AFP/Getty Images

After Joe Biden told a crowd in Warsaw last month that Russian President Vladimir Putin “cannot remain in power,” White House officials scrambled to walk back a comment that many observers just chalked up to the U.S. President’s well-known tendency for verbal gaffes.

“We do not have a strategy of regime change in Russia, or anywhere else, for that matter,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken insisted after Mr. Biden’s March 26 speech in the Polish capital.

“The U.S. does not have a policy of regime change in Russia. Full stop,” Julianne Smith, the U.S. ambassador to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, told CNN on the same day.

Those denials did not halt speculation about the Biden administration’s ultimate goals as it stepped up economic and military aid to the Ukrainian government a month after Mr. Putin launched a full-scale invasion of the country. Mr. Biden’s predecessors, Barack Obama and Donald Trump, had avoided confrontation with Mr. Putin; Mr. Biden, it seemed, had come to understand that the United States could no longer abide by such a risk-averse strategy.

To be sure, Mr. Biden insisted from the outset of the conflict that he would never send U.S. troops to fight in Ukraine or impose a no-fly zone over the country, warning that such direct U.S. or NATO intervention could lead to a third world war. But it has become clear that the U.S. President sees the conflict as a now-or-never moment to permanently neutralize Mr. Putin.

“We want to see Russia weakened to the degree that it can’t do the kinds of things that it has done in invading Ukraine,” U.S. Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin said on Sunday during a trip to Kyiv with Mr. Blinken. “It has already lost a lot of military capability, and a lot of its troops, quite frankly. And we want to see them not have the capability to very quickly rebuild that capability.”

Mr. Blinken, for his part, added that a “sovereign, independent Ukraine will be around a lot longer than Vladimir Putin is around.”

He would not have likely made that comment if he did not believe it. After all, in 2012, as then-vice-president Joe Biden’s national security adviser, he had warned that “superpowers don’t bluff” in Situation Room meetings around Syria’s civil war after Mr. Obama had drawn a “red line” on the use of chemical weapons by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Mr. Obama’s failure to follow through with his threat weakened U.S. credibility among friends and foes alike.

Indeed, it emboldened Mr. Putin, who moved to prop up Mr. al-Assad’s army with military aid before sending Russian troops into Syria in 2015. That followed Mr. Putin’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. The Obama administration also rejected calls to send arms to Ukraine as it fought Russian-backed separatist militants in the Donbas region, arguing the move would put the U.S. in direct conflict with Moscow.

That decision might have been overturned if Hillary Clinton had won the 2016 presidential election. Instead, Mr. Trump – who won a race in which the Russians interfered, according to U.S. intelligence agencies – showed even more indulgence toward the Russian President’s aggression abroad. Under pressure from the Pentagon and Congress, Mr. Trump did agree, in 2017, to sell Javelin anti-tank missiles to Ukraine. But he showed little interest in Ukraine beyond that until he attempted, in 2019, to get President Volodymyr Zelensky to launch an investigation into the business dealings of Mr. Biden’s son. That incident led to Mr. Trump’s first impeachment.

Mr. Putin appears to have believed that Mr. Biden would continue the same hands-off policy as his predecessors. His Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine, however, was met with both heroic and unexpected resistance by Ukrainians themselves and by U.S. resolve to punish Mr. Putin for his aggression. While economic sanctions aim to strangle Russia financially, it may be the U.S.’s ban on high-technology exports that ultimately undermines Mr. Putin’s imperialist ambitions.

The Russian military has already experienced massive losses in Ukraine, losing as many as 20,000 soldiers and incalculable quantities of equipment. Mr. Austin’s reference to efforts to prevent Russia from rebuilding that capacity – in part by cutting off the supply of the computer chips and other sophisticated technology required to run a modern military – suggests a U.S. strategy aimed at gradually sapping Mr. Putin’s ability to wage war.

The big risk is that a desperate Mr. Putin is pushed to the brink, and resorts to using chemical or tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine. The Russian President already sees the U.S.’s military aid to Ukraine, which dwarfs that of all other Western countries, as a direct intervention in the war.

But inaction by his predecessors in the White House has left Mr. Biden with no choice.

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