Putin Must Go
The only hope for security in Europe is regime change in Russia.
“For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power,” President Biden declared about Vladimir Putin in March — which sent his staff into yet another message control frenzy. Biden has been called a “gaffe machine” since his days as Obama’s V-P, but I’ve always admired him for his almost childlike honesty. He simply speaks the truth absent the diplomatic varnish and political abstruseness that overeducated, nuance-obsessed staffers crave. His latest “gaffe” sending his people into a spin-tizzy was his plain-spoken declaration that, yes, the United States would defend Taiwan from a Chinese invasion. In a few words, he unceremoniously dumped the head-scratcher “strategic ambiguity” policy of the past four decades. Why fudge a fact everyone has known all these years? Honest Joe tells it like it is.
And he’s right about Putin needing to go. Does anyone in their right mind believe a “negotiated” deal with the ex-KGB operative would stick, much less secure Europe’s stability? It’s as if Macron, Draghi and Sholtz never read their history about Munich 1938. The only “deal” that worked with Hitler was a cyanide capsule and a self-administered 9mm bullet in his skull. While I’m not advocating this solution for Putin… well, it is one option after all.
Countries that get this are those that have suffered under Russian control, under the Tsars as well as the Soviets — Poland and the Baltic states, in particular. Little Estonia has provided more per capita aid to Ukraine than any other nation. The Poles have welcomed over 3.5 million Ukrainian refugees with nary a whimper of complaint. Lethal aid is being channeled through all the NATO members bordering Ukraine save quasi-fascist Hungary.
Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis has made no bones about the need for regime change in Russia, telling AP:
From our standpoint, up until the point the current regime is not in power, the countries surrounding it will be, to some extent, in danger. Not just Putin but the whole regime because, you know, one might change Putin and might change his inner circle but another Putin might rise into his place. And so as long as a regime that intends to wage wars outside Russian territory is in place, the countries surrounding it are in danger… Coming from me, it’s much easier to say we need regime change in Russia, so we’ve been quite blunt and open about it.
Atlantic staff writer Anne Applebaum also eschews a “strategic ambiguity”-style policy for the U.S: “Although saying so is considered undiplomatic, the American administration clearly knows that the defeat, sidelining, or removal of Putin is the only outcome that offers any long-term stability in Ukraine and the rest of Europe.”
So, yes, while it’s much easier for a foreign minister of a nation of under 3 million with 20,000 soldiers than the leader of a superpower with 1.4 million troops and a nuclear arsenal to call for Putin’s removal, ambiguity might be called for in public statements by U.S. officials, but regime change should be implied in actual policy. The reason is that it’s not a good idea to corner a crazed nuclear power like Russia. In fact Putin wrote about an encounter he had as a boy cornering a rat:
There, on that stair landing, I got a quick and lasting lesson in the meaning of the word ‘cornered.’ There were hordes of rats in the front entryway. My friends and I used to chase them around with sticks. Once I spotted a huge rat and pursued it down the hall until I drove it into a corner. It had nowhere to run. Suddenly it lashed around and threw itself at me. I was surprised and frightened. Now the rat was chasing me. It jumped across the landing and down the stairs. Luckily, I was a little faster and I managed to slam the door on its nose.
Now with Putin facing a military and political catastrophe of his own making, Kremlin-watchers speculate that the Russian leader may be the one who feels cornered—and they fret about how he’ll respond.
Shortly after the Russian invasion, I wrote of the need to bleed Russia over an extended period of time. Such an approach worked in getting Moscow to end its failed occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s, in which I was involved. It takes time for the pain and realization of a disastrous foreign adventure to sink in with the elites as well as the general population and for them to come around. Such a policy requires steady nerves and disciplined patience among Ukraine’s supporters.
I also wrote about how Putin will be removed from power, citing Russia historian Alexander Motyl:
The combination of popular protest, elite machinations, state failure, declining legitimacy, a grinding war, and international isolation inevitably will have only one outcome: Putin’s ouster. Some analysts suggest that he risks assassination. Others argue that, since Putin is ensconced in a bunker, decapitating him need not entail physical violence. It can be achieved by severing the “thin thread” that binds him to Russia’s executive institutions. Putin can be neutralized simply by being completely isolated.
The catalyst for revolution, in my view, will likely come from the military and security services following failure on the battlefield — as happened in 1917.
Again, time and patience.
But the likelihood of Putin being replaced by a democratic leader, say, an Alexander Navalny, is not good. Yale political science professor Milan S. Svolik finds that following coups, only 1 in 10 autocracies have been replaced by democracies. And if the ruler is overthrown by a mass uprising, the figure is 4 in 10. Russia’s history, moreover, gives little hope for optimism. Alexander Kerensky’s liberal-leaning Russian Provisional Government was swept from power by the Bolsheviks after only eight months in authority. And Mikhail Gorbachev’s policy of glasnost and his successor Boris Yeltsin’s efforts to liberalize Russia yielded to the chekist-inspired thugocracy under Putin.
What are the alternatives? Leaving a wounded tyrant in power, bent on revenge and postponed irredentism? I’ll take my chances with his replacement. But, if I were President Biden, I would task policy planners now with forward-looking options for engaging with key Russian constituencies, holding out the hand of friendship and re-engagement in a post-Putin era. It’s a tall order, to be sure. But again, what are the alternatives?
The opinions and characterizations in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent official positions of the U.S. government.