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?