Could the US realistically force a leadership change in Russia?

Imagine, for a moment, that President Biden meant what he said when he blurted out, “For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power!”

Biden has insisted he wasn’t walking back anything he said, and then walked it back further: “I’m not walking anything back. The fact of the matter is, I was expressing the moral outrage I felt towards the way Putin is dealing, the actions of this man, just, just brutality… But I want to make it clear, I wasn’t then, nor am I now, articulating a policy change. I was expressing the moral outrage I feel, and I make no apologies for it.”

If the U.S. did make a policy change, and wanted to remove Vladimir Putin from power, what would we do? What could we do?

Assassination? We’ve seen in history how often that goes terribly wrong. Putin has been paranoid about assassination attempts for years, using food tasters since at least 2012. Trying to assassinate Putin would have a low chance of success, and any exposure of the plot would be disastrous for the United States; the Russian government could and likely would interpret the assassination or its attempt as an act of war.

Speaking of war, could the U.S. give Vladimir Putin the Saddam Hussein treatment? No, that’s logistically impossible; not even all of NATO combined has enough manpower to invade and subdue all of Russia.

The most promising path would be to stir up the Russian public’s discontent with Putin and hope that an popular uprising topples him from power. You could argue that the sweeping economic sanctions imposed on Russia are a backdoor attempt at this outcome; the hope is that the economic pain becomes so severe that the Russian people decide they’ve had enough of Putin’s invasion and all-around belligerence and figure out some way to remove him from power.

In recent weeks, we’ve seen some courageous and surprisingly widespread Russian protests against the invasion of Ukraine. No doubt, plenty of Russians can see the invasion is having catastrophic effects on their country, and want nothing to do with Putin’s aggressive agenda. But so far, those protests do not appear to be anything that Putin’s far-reaching, iron-fisted security state cannot handle. In the past decades, fairly sizable protests against Putin have come and gone, and Putin’s grip on power remained as strong as ever.

Secretly funding opposition groups? More efforts to puncture Putin’s wall of propaganda? Attempts to widen divisions in Russian society, and encourage the formations of splinter factions? Any of those options could theoretically someday become a tipping point that spurred Russians to rise up against Putin, but they’re not particularly likely to work, and they certainly aren’t likely to work fast. Brutal dictators rarely come down without a fight. Sometimes the people rise up in discontent and you get an outcome like the fall of the Berlin Wall or the Romanian revolution of 1989. And sometimes the people rise up in discontent and you get Tiananmen Square or the protests against the Iranian mullahs in recent years.

There are not a lot of good options – and we have particularly good reasons to be a little more cautious or less provocative in how we treat a regime that has nuclear weapons. Yes, many Americans wish someone else was ruling Russia. We wish someone nicer than Xi Jinping was ruling China, and someone nicer than Kim Jong Un was ruling North Korea, and someone nicer than the mullahs was ruling Iran. But they’re not, which means we have to figure out how to advance our interests in a world where those thugs are running the show in foreign capitals. Opposing a regime – and exposing how it rules against the will of the people – is not the same as actively taking actions to overthrow that regime. Perhaps we can give any of those regimes a secret shove when they start to look wobbly.

Even if the U.S. wanted to depose Vladimir Putin, it doesn’t have any realistic plans on how to do that. And presidents should probably not blurt out longshot ideas because they’re angry.

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