Regime Change in Russia?
Can the unsustainable be sustained?
While I don’t always agree with his politics, David Rothkopf is a sober analyst of global affairs. So I was rather shocked with his Daily Beast column’s proclamation, “Putin Has Left the World No Other Option But Regime Change.”
Not that this isn’t spot on:
Vladimir Putin must go.
His demented Kremlin speech Friday, during a ceremony in which he feebly asserted Russia was annexing portions of Ukraine, made the strongest case for the necessity of regime change in Moscow that any world leader has yet to make.
But it has been clear the Russian dictator must be removed from office for a long time now.
It has been clear because Putin’s actions and rhetoric demonstrate day in and day out that Ukraine can never be secure as long as he remains in office. It has been clear because none of Russia’s neighbors can be secure with a megalomaniacal lunatic next door who speaks of Russian empire and constantly threatens to rewrite the borders of sovereign states.
It has been clear because the world can’t be stable as long as the man who controls the planet’s largest stockpile of nuclear weapons is one whose power is unchecked at home, who shows such contempt for both international law and human decency, and whose ambitions are so untethered to reality.
Justice also requires that Putin leave office. He is a serial war criminal, one of the worst the world has seen in the modern era. He has laid waste to a sovereign nation. He is responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands. He has embraced the language and practice of genocide. His armies have committed war crimes. Mass graves attest to his brutality. What is more, his crimes are not limited to the human suffering he has unleashed upon Ukraine. Other violations of fundamental laws and myriad atrocities can be traced to decisions he has made—from Russia’s leveling of Grozny in Chechnya to Russia’s active support for and participation in horrors in Syria; from the invasion of Georgia to Putin’s murderous campaign against dissidents within his own country.
Putin, for years, has provided evidence not only to international prosecutors but to every sentient being on the planet that he is not a legitimate leader. He does not deserve to be swathed in the protections normally accorded to foreign heads of state. He has no more claim on them than did past monsters—from Hitler to Saddam to Gadhafi, from Pol Pot to Milosevic.
But Rothkopf has spent much of the last two decades railing against the stupidity of the Iraq invasion and the fecklessness of the Obama and Trump foreign policy approaches. Is he really advocating that we topple the leader of the country that possesses the world’s largest nuclear stockpile?
No, not exactly.
When President Joe Biden said of Putin in May, “For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power,” it was followed by a swift “clarification” from the White House that the president “was not discussing Putin’s power in Russia, or regime change.”
But as we have gradually come to learn, Biden’s seemingly spontaneous comments on crucial issues of international policy to which he has devoted decades of study—whether they concern Putin or Taiwan—are not gaffes. They instead are expressions of common sense, acknowledgements of reality that diplomats may wish were unspoken, that cannot be the “official” policy of the U.S., but that are signs that the president understands clearly the reality on the ground and U.S. interests.
That is good because tiptoeing around the threat posed by Putin, hoping that accommodating him would lead to moderation in his behavior certainly has not worked. Indeed with every respectful, restrained response to Putin’s aggression or abuses, we have only seen an escalation of his offenses.
I disagree but only at the margins. My problem with “Putin must go” is the same as I had with the equivalent pronouncements from President Obama about Bashar al-Assad: what’s the plan? It’s all good and well to wish away one’s problems. But the President of the United States is the single most powerful player in world affairs. When they make pronouncements about what must be, they’re expected to act to make it a reality.
Protests in Russia are already growing bolder.
Celebrities and business leaders are speaking out more clearly. How long will it be before the security services that surround and protect Putin begin to see the fact that he is a threat to their well-being, to their lives, to the futures of their families?
Accepting the reality that Putin must go is just common sense at this point. Recognizing that reality, we should embrace policies that encourage the conditions that will make it come to pass. We should also prepare for the consequences of such a change and make sure to send Moscow the message that Russia’s neighbors and the community of nations welcome a more responsible Russia—while also making clear that we are ready to defend ourselves against one that makes the mistake of continuing (or making worse) Putin’s policies.
As for making the case to the Russian people that they must act, we need not do that. Putin, with speeches like Friday’s and self-inflicted catastrophes like Ukraine, is already doing that far more persuasively than we could hope to do.
So, I agree with all of that. There’s a real possibility that Putin will be taken down and we ought to prepare for that possibility. We ought also prepare for the possibility that he escalates rashly and foolishly to save his bacon.
But hope, it is often said, is not a strategy. A different regime in Russia would almost certainly be better than the one we have now. But what if he doesn’t leave? What if, somehow, he survives the protests and there isn’t a coup from within? What options does the world have then?
Saw the headline, but didn’t read the article, after all, it’s the Daily Beast, but duh, Putin must go. The problem is that Putin is only the face of neo-empire Russian adventurism, virtually all the likely Putin replacements essentially agree with his policy aims, but believe he’s incompetent in executing them. This isn’t the USSR, where the Politburo was a governing council and the premier a leader among equals, and could replace the premier with a leader that would take a different direction. Russian government today is a strongman led authoritarian state, where control is maintained by a small elite. That elite may replace Putin, but with someone who shares Putin’s values and would likely pursue the same policies by different means.
Until there is a popular revolt by the citizenry of Russia that results in a wiping away of the governing system and the oligarchy, Russia will continue to present a problem for its neighbors and the rest of the world. That revolt is doubtful, as historically the Russian populace has favored autocratic leaders.
We keep punishing Russia as the only way to punish Putin. Whether Putin comes or goes is not something we control. But we can continue weakening Russia. The West can keep up sanctions. Europe can (must) find alternative energy suppliers. We should do all we can to support the Russian brain drain. And we can arm Ukraine and bring it into NATO.
The damage being inflicted on Russia is long term. Normally one might say it will take them some time to recover, but this Russia is not capable of recovery. Russia has been hobbled in a race they were already losing.
Putin’s only remaining move is threatening suicide by launching nukes. This is why all the cautious, ‘Oooh, don’t back him into a corner,’ crowd are wrong. He’s already in that corner. I suspect he’s facing humiliation so severe he won’t be able to metabolize it. He’s not going to be Tsar of a great new empire, he’s going to be Mussolini after the failures in Ethiopia. He’s exposed as second-rate. Xi may get to play the Hitler role, but Putin will always be the guy who couldn’t take down a Jewish comedian in charge of a supposedly fictional country.
This is why all the ‘wiser, cooler heads,’ terrified of making credible threats are also wrong. It doesn’t matter if Putin survives another 5 or 10 years, he’s dead man walking, a failed Ivan the Terrible. All he can do is lash out. We need to think beyond Putin. The serious, credible threats are for the benefit of anyone in Russia who can still take action against Putin to stop him going nuclear. Little threats like more sanctions won’t be enough. The threat must be disproportionate and it must be something that does serious damage.
Some suggest we threaten to sink the entire Russian Black Sea fleet. Sure. I suggest we let the Russians know that if they use even a teeny, tiny nuke, we will send one of their boomers to the bottom. Six of one.
What Putin has made clear is that he is not necessary. From the invasion of the Ukraine on, there’s been a desperate attempt by the weirdos on his side in the west to talk about ‘existential’ threats to Russia. None of this has worked, and it has underscored the common link of narcissism that spans from American conservatives to Putin. The bottom line is a different authoritarian could be in charge doing things differently. The invasion of the Ukraine and the current schtick of talking about nukes to save the world from gender ideology was not inevitable, and that’s the incentive to regime change. You could actually get a better authoritarian out of the change.
The current most likely successors (or at least who are trying for that spot) are Ramzan Kadyrov and Evgeny Prigozhin. Be careful what you wish for.
If Putin falls, it’s going to look like a replay of “The Death of Stalin.” Worse, probably.
But a far better autocrat did emerge after Stalin’s death.
Any new regime must have its own power base, whether it’s (parts of) civil society, the military, or something else.
In 1917 it was the Bolsheviks. But now?
There is no meaningful political opposition. There is Navalny (in prison), but no organization that can mobilize support.
The oligarchs are toothless (and pretty much organized crime on a grander scale).
There is, however, the military, the security services, and, potentially, regionalism.
I’m not sure that would lead to something better. Yugoslavia with nukes, possibly.
Best case scenario for regime change: the next leader blames the Ukraine fiasco on Putin personally and manages to move on. But which strongman can accept defeat in Ukraine and stay in power? That would be a hard position to be in.
Other best case (I think): a chastened Putin stays on – like Saddam after being kicked out of Kuwait.
Other options don’t look so fine right now.
But there is simply not much that the West can do…
@Modulo Myself: Better, perhaps. “Far better,” meh. And that was only after a LOT of infighting. Plus they weren’t in the middle of a war.
It doesn’t matter. Whoever takes over after Putin falls will have the same weakness. The problem is Russia itself. Russia has always been a second-rate country except when it’s a third-rate country. I think Russians look at their maps and think, ‘We are so big! Look how big we are! We must be incredibly powerful!’
In reality they have a population slightly larger than Mexico, and that population is shrinking. Number six in GDP (PPP), number eleven in GDP (nominal) and a per capita GDP a bit lower than Romania, and it’s likely that Russia will slide further down the economic leader board. Even if Russia was ruled by Augustus they’d never be Rome. They are doomed to a future of decline.
It absolutely does.
The problem isn’t that Putin is losing, it’s that he is doubling down on a losing strategy, while also being in the possession of the world’s largest nuclear arsenal.
You would want any leader of a nuclear power to be as rational as possible. You would want to have someone able to recognize when he has lost.
Prigozhin and Kadyrov don’t fit that bill. As far as I can tell, they are stupider than Putin (which is saying quite a lot).
We don’t really have any levers for removing him beyond variations of what we are doing now — anything that broadens the war is likely to rally a lot of the Russian public to his side as it becomes Russia vs NATO.
Right now this is a stupid war of choice — the easiest possible war for the Russian people to oppose. We do not want to make it an existential threat to Russia.
Unless we have a bunch of ninjas and a Putin body-double (who may also need to be a ninja), assassination is also likely out. As a rule of thumb, countries do not take kindly to us removing their leaders.
Change will have to happen in Russia, by Russians.
Regime change is up to Putin’s known and unknown opponents in Russia. We cannot remove Putin. Except being vocal about how Putin sucks, especially with members of the Russian diaspora in our orbit.
We should keep disagreeing publicly with Putin’s usefit idiots (Joe Rogan, Marjorie Qaylor-Greene etc) and collaborators (Tucker Carlson, Drama Queen Donnie). Keep providing financial and military assistance to our allies, but we need to let Europe lead, not just for show. Biden has wisely sidelined the cowboys, refused to let this become Biden v. Putin. But Europe needs to step up their game.
Dr. Joyner poses these rhetorical questions as an earnest dilemma, precisely because they’re not for us to answer. There are Russians furious with Putin rn. His usage of Russian boys as cannon fodder is a war crime against Russia. He and his inner circle are trouble. Russians will answer questions posed by this awful situation.
Would love to know what’s being said in the Pentagon-Kremlin backchannel. Or maybe not? Anyway, I don’t see the Russian elites who carry out nuke orders committing suicide, even if Putin decides to. He may think he’s Jim Jones, he may turn out to be Nicolae Ceaușescu.
I’m in agreement with @Cheryl Rofer: and @Michael Reynolds:, replacing Putin isn’t a panacea and what could follow maybe worse.
A different Russian Prez from the elite, may take the opportunity to pull out of Ukraine or more likely pull back to the pre-February lines, only to rearm and retrain and go back at it in 10-15 years.
The fall of Putin could be the impetus for the member states of the Russian Federation to pull out, particularly the stans and those states with inconsequential Slavic minorities. That would complicate the reality for any future Russian leader.
If plan A is Putin falls, I hope Biden has a damn good plan B.
I’ll also note what a great job Biden had done uniting and leading the west. And lament what might have been done about AGW had GOPs not blocked the U. S. from leading on that. As cynical as I am, there’s a fair amount of truth in the idea of the U. S. as a mostly benevolent hegemon. Or at least there was before W and Trump.
Keeping in mind that I think he should go, I am not sure we are at all guaranteed a better regime. What if the more hardline faction is the one that ousts him?
Imagine a coffee shop in Berlin, circa 1931. “It doesn’t matter if von Hindenburg is ousted in a coup. Whoever takes over will have the same weaknesses.”
We could do Tehran in 1978ish, Havana in 1958, Rome in 1921ish, Santiago in 1972, and so forth.
I am not a “great man” theorist, but let’s not pretend that leadership doesn’t matter, especially during times of dramatic regime change.
@Steven L. Taylor: I see that the thread had well progressed past this point by the time I commented.
All of this is true, but ignores their nuclear arsenal in terms of having to deal with them very differently than we deal with Romania.
Indeed, if they didn’t have nukes, this entire Ukraine situation would be playing out differently.
One of the difficulties Americans are grappling with is a world in which so much of it is beyond our control.
Not like we ever had control of Russian politics , but now we really don’t have the leverage over Europe and the rest of the world that we had during the Cold War and our ability to influence the outcome is limited.
I’d like to think that people who grasp the foolishness of our attempts at kingmaking in the Middle East can appreciate a different role for us as part of a partnership of equals rather than the unipolar hegemon.
Unlikely to be Kadyrov; for similar reasons that it’s unlikely to be Shoigu: not an ethnic Russian.
Russian chauvinism is real factor.
@Steven L. Taylor:
Maybe I didn’t state my point clearly: I meant that a new leader in Russia does not alter their predicament or improve their strategic situation. A ‘new, tougher Putin’ may be new, may think he’s tougher, but he’s still stuck with low energy Russia.
You cannot build an empire on nukes. You need soft power as well as hard power. You need a supportive, motivated population and a dynamic economy. This is not Britain in the 18th/19th or Germany in the 20th. Russia is a power in decline. Their nukes can only be used if they are interested in suicide. Their path forward is either a suicidal nuke-fest or a long decline.
To be an equal partner we’d have to be a lot smaller and weaker and our partners would have to be bigger and stronger than they are now. France, UK, Germany, Japan? We can and should maintain a fiction of equality, but a fiction is all it will be.
If we hold together politically (a big if) we will be the only true superpower going forward. I suspect China has missed its chance at the brass ring. There may come a time when India rises, but even in ideal circumstances that’s decades away. There is just one country that can, for example, shut down global trade in 24 hours using nothing but available conventional forces. That’s us, and no one else.
October 1962. Sixty years ago. I was 14, a freshman in High School. I remember working in my father’s donut shop in Danville, Illinois at night when news reports came over the radio that United States nuclear missiles had been sighted out of their underground silos. Other reports were of Russian ships loaded with nuclear missles that were headed for Cuba and that President Kennedy announced a quarantine of Cuba to prevent the Soviet ships from arriving at their destination.
I was old enough to know that the situation was serious and could get worse at any time. I remember thinking that there was nothing that I could do about it and that I would just have to wait and see what happened.
Today Putin is threatening to use nuclear weapons.
Are the United States missiles out of their silos? Would we know if they are?
Other than support President Biden and trust that his advisors are competent to deal with this situation there is nothing that I can do about it and I will just have to wait and see what happens.
@Mister Bluster: Did you keep giving customers donuts? Because if so, you were doing the Lord’s work of comforting people in what could have been their final moments.
When I die, I hope it is with a donut.
It seems to me that the US, or the West in general, has few levers that can be applied to effect changes in Russia, one way or the other, for good or ill.
Economic sanctions will remain in place until there is a peace settlement.
Such a settlement looks vanishingly unlikely so long as Putin, or a “hardline” successor, holds power in Moscow.
In such a circumstance the most likely outcome is a more-or-less stable ceasefire with a beaten and resentful Russia.
In those conditions, sanctions will remain in place and containment measures of various kinds will be required.
If Putin is succeeded by more realistic rulers, that would permit the removal of formal sanctions as part of a peace agreement.
However, if, as is quite probable, they are “nationalistic realists” even formal restoration or relations will not resolve the situation.
Unless Russia either “liberalises”, unlikely given the dynamics of the elite groups, or disintegrates, any nationalist government will, and should, be regraded with suspicion.
No European country (apart, perhaps from Hungary – but Fidesz is on a clock there) is going to rely on Russian hydrocarbons again any time soon.
Or invest on a large scale in Russia, except with a huge risk premium on returns.
Especially as the EU will be spending huge sums on reconstructing and developing Ukraine.
And Ukraine is going to be a de-facto member of an “extended NATO” in some form or other, as well as on accelerated track to EU membership, and to full economic integration even before that.
We can do little either for or to Russia; it has to choose it’s course.
And that choice is the same as it has faced, and many of it’s elites and popular nationlists have loathed and resented, since 1990.
They can be an equal partner in Europe; or they can continue to dream of being a imperial superpower, and in fact condemn themselves to being a subordinate of China.
The rulers of Russia have a quarrel with historical reality.
Only they can choose end that quarrel.
I have to wonder on what basis you make that assessment. There is a non-trivial chance the next leadership will be worse, even assuming a peaceful transition of power. One cannot discount the potential for a civil war – which would be bad considering how many nukes Russia has.
Talk of regime change is counterproductive, at best. It helps Putin more than hurts him, it confirms long-standing Russsian paranoia about the intentions of the west; it (wrongly) assumes that Putin is the lynchpin standing in the way of a more pro-western governance (This same mistake was made with Saddam Hussein and others). On that score it is also lazy, promoting the illusion that eliminating one man is the “one neat trick” to achieve a foreign policy victory.The US track record on positive regime change is…poor.
etc., etc., etc. There is really very little positive to say about this idea. And this is before considering the practical questions, which do not support this idea either.
So Rothkopf isn’t providing “sober analysis” here, he’s promoting a dangerous and stupid idea that can’t be implemented even if it were a sound idea. The most charitable thing I can say is that it is ignorant of wishcasting.
The best thing we could do is nothing more than what we are doing. Russia is currently losing and there is no need to do anything but let current trends work on Russia’s internal power structures. Russia is currently in an untenable position – promoting the idea of regime change is a more of a lifeline that will allow the Russian leadership to focus the population and elite on an external threat. Dumb, dumb, dumb IMO.
@Gustopher:..the Lord’s work…
The franchise was called Bakers Dozen Donuts. A family owned company out of Bloomington. Illinois. I think that they had maybe 5 or 6 shops in Illinois and Indiana. When you bought a dozen donuts we gave you 13.
I see Cheryl Rofer has a new post at LGM noting unconfirmed reports of an apparent Ukrainian advance on the north end of the Kherson lodgement. Recently there were reports the Russian generals want to withdraw back across the river but Putin won’t allow a retreat from
Red Storm Rising. Early Tom Clancy believed that the Soviet/Russian military leadership was both sane and an internal power to be reckoned with. So far as I can tell, Putin has done a thorough job of making sure that’s not true, at least in the confines of Moscow and St. Petersburg.
Retreat has gotten quite difficult. It certainly appears that Ukrainian artillery has interdicted the river crossings. And a guess on my part, largely reduced the Russian artillery to where it’s ineffective. Ukraine has kept an admirable lid on what’s really been happening on the Kherson front.
Very excited day on Ukraine Twitter b/c of southern front. Seems UK broke thru in northeast, drove to reservoir of Dnipro river and advanced some 25km down its shore. There seems to be a related drive from the north creating another ‘caldron’ for Ru’s.
Isn’t the subtextual meaning of “Putin must go” that we won’t agree to any settlement with a government led by Putin.
And while yeah, his replacement might be similar, he doesn’t have the track record, and the fact this happened to Putin (if he gets replaced it won’t be pretty) will have a cautionary effect, I would think.
None of this is going to be pretty. Brace yourselves.
To the beat of the music from the Bridge on the River Kwai
Donuts we eat them every day
Donuts we eat them plain or glazed
Or I go nuts
Without any donuts today
I predicted a regime change, or at least a swap out from Putin, in the first week of his foolish Ukrainian special operation.
Very rich Russians enjoy Western stuff and enjoy strutting. Yachts, restaurants, compliant women or men, a nice article in the local paper when they buy up some local landmark.
Being denied those things under Putin’s stupid land grab will chafe. They took your Italian villa, your French chateau, your yacht, your Montana ranch, your Manhattan penthouse, your other yacht, your London townhouse, half your assets. You cannot leave Russia. October in St. Petersburg.
That sucks. I preferred the status quo ante. Maybe I can bribe a fool to poison him.
Putin is short for this earth. He is denying oligarchs pleasures they think are their due.
I predict a sudden health emergency in his near future. And a more amenable pawn in the future. Putin seems to want a North Korea style Russia, oligarchs want Cyprus and Swiss banking, high end hookers, and London townhouses.
In the battle between cosmopolitan billionaires and isolationist milatarists, my bet is on the billionaires.
Especially since Putin stepped on his own dick with Ukraine. Incompetence in a “leader” is not acceptable. Putin is dead man walking.
Michael and Andy have said it above. Any Russian head of state who will succeed Putin is actually likely to be worse. He won’t be succeeded by a liberal democrat. Yes, the problem is Russia and it’s an intractable one.
Thing is, the oligarchs are in a subordinate position to the real power-elite.
That was the big change that happened in the transition form Yeltsin’s system to Putin’s
Oligarchs don’t have the power; siloviki have the power.
The two are very different breeds of cat.
There is some overlap; but generally oligarchs are businessmen first and foremost, sometimes with a side-order of mobster.
Siloviki translates as the “men of force” or “of power”; implying both capacity for violence, freedom of action, and a sort of acknowledged authority.
The group Putin emerged from and used, who have become his key support group.
High rank security/militia/police/secret police/paramilitary (rarely actual military though) types; with a lot of gangster-as-they-wannabe attitude with it.
Often (at the top levels) very to very very rich, but as secondary thing.
Power is their thing not money.
If a top silovik wants use of a yacht, he can always just step up to a billionaire and ask.
Or not so nicely.
As long as its OK with the “Big Roof”: Putin.
They don’t permit mere billionaire businessmen to challenge them; such challenges are quashed by whatever mix of (ab)use of the legal system and naked violence serves.
They don’t permit mere billionaire businessmen to challenge them; such challenges are quashed by whatever mix of (ab)use of the legal system and extrajudicial violence serves them best.
That is where a replacement will come from; or possibly they may choose a “political” as a front man.
And most of them appear to be nationalists of one stripe or another, with the main difference being betweeen “hardliners” and “pragmatists”.
Even the “liberal” opposition around Navalny are often pretty hardcore Russian chauvinists.
Putin’s demise may be pleasing in its own right.
But the nature of his successor may be a sore disappointment to us.
It’s a fair prediction that Russia will not be off the hook unless Putin is gone. A lot of economic forces will push people on both sides to try to normalize relations between Russia and the West regardless of who or whatever takes his place…provided of course that Whoeveritis quits on the SMO in Ukraine.
In that regard regime change is a must.
Russia, the Detroit Lion’s of the international community.