Vladimir Putin must go.
His insane speech in the Kremlin on Friday, at a ceremony in which he weakly claimed that Russia was annexing parts of Ukraine, made the strongest argument for the need for regime change in Moscow that a world leader has yet to make.
But it has long been clear that the Russian dictator must be removed from office.
It was clear because Putin’s actions and rhetoric demonstrate day in and day out that Ukraine can never be safe as long as he remains in office. It was obvious because none of the Russian neighbors can be safe with a megalomaniac madman next door who talks about the Russian Empire and constantly threatens to rewrite the borders of sovereign states.
It was clear because the world cannot be stable as long as the man who controls the largest stockpile of nuclear weapons in the world is one whose power at home is unchecked, who shows such disregard for both international law and human decency, and whose ambitions are so unfettered to reality.
Justice also requires Putin to leave office. He is a serial war criminal, one of the worst the world has seen in modern times. He has destroyed 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 testify to his brutality. Moreover, his crimes are not limited to the human suffering he inflicted on Ukraine. Other violations of fundamental laws and countless atrocities can be traced back to decisions he made – from Russia’s leveling of Grozny in Chechnya to Russia’s active support and participation in terror in Syria; from the invasion of Georgia to Putin’s murderous campaign against dissidents in his own country.
Putin has spent years proving 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 wrapped in the protection normally afforded to foreign heads of state. He has no more claim on them than monsters of the past – from Hitler to Saddam to Gaddafi, from Pol Pot to Milosevic.
The dead of Bucha and Melitipol or Izyum prove that with their absence. So are the victims of Russian torture, of bombed hospitals, schools and train stations, of mass kidnappings and of incessant terror targeted by Russian missiles, artillery and troops on innocents – victims of the misfortune to sit side by side with one of the most horrific criminals .
No one could listen to Putin’s rambunctious rant on Friday and draw any conclusion other than the fact that the longer Putin stays in office, the greater the damage he will do.
If the absurd spectacle of a “signing ceremony” confirming Russian control of Ukrainian territory with Kremlin accomplices and nationalist chants didn’t make observers shudder to the bone, Putin’s bellicose language condemning “the enemy” in the West would and his allegations that he might be within his rights to use nuclear weapons certainly should. He mocked international law. He condemned American ‘Satanism’. He called on Ukraine to negotiate, but said the fate of “Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhia and Kherson” was not on the table, that they would be part of Russia “forever”.
When President Joe Biden said of Putin in May, “For God’s sake, this man can’t stay in power,” it was followed by a quick “clarification” from the White House that the president “wasn’t talking about Putin’s power in Russia.” or Change the Regime.”
But as we have gradually come to learn, Biden’s seemingly spontaneous remarks on crucial issues of international policy to which he has devoted decades of study — whether they concern Putin or Taiwan — are not blunders. They are instead expressions of common sense, acknowledgments of the reality that diplomats may wish were unspoken, that may not be US “official” policy, but they are signs that the president is clearly aware of the reality on the ground and understand American interests.
That’s good, because tiptoeing around Putin’s threat in the hopes that accommodating him would lead to moderation in his behavior certainly hasn’t worked. Indeed, in any respectful, restrained response to Putin’s aggression or abuse, we have only seen an escalation of his transgressions.
The “measured” responses to his aggression from the Bush or Obama years didn’t work. Nor the toiling submission of former President Donald Trump. indeed, the ostpolitik of Angela Merkel and the hesitations of French President Emmanuel Macron and other European leaders have actually helped and empowered Putin.
No doubt Putin’s allies — such as the talking heads at Fox News, the leaders of the MAGA caucus on Capitol Hill and Putinists across Europe — will warn that even talking about the need to remove Putin from office will provoke him, perhaps even lead to unleashing nuclear weapons in Ukraine or against the West. How do we know? Because that was the response to Biden’s moment of public honesty and realism on the matter.
Many others, including some respected foreign policy experts, suggested that we should not corner Putin with a public position demanding his removal.
Some of those experts rightly note that the US has a checkered history in seeking regime change. They argue that there are no good alternatives to Putin, and so getting rid of him could yield an even worse outcome, whether that be the chaos associated with a leadership void or a more dangerous leader.
But go back and listen to his speech from Friday. It makes clear that we are well past the point where the dangers of staying in power outweigh the dangers that could be caused by his fall.
Furthermore, removing the world’s autocrats and heads of state has generally not produced worse successors. That was certainly true in the cases of Hitler, Mussolini, Milosevic, Pol Pot and many others.
“…walking on tiptoe around Putin’s threat in the hopes that accommodating him would moderate his behavior certainly hasn’t worked.”
Then recognizing that Putin must go is not the same as making regime change a matter of public policy. For governments, it can (and should) remain an unspoken goal.
That said, certain sanctions imposed on Russia should remain in place until Russia changes key policies and positions indelibly associated with Putin, which will effectively mean Putin is no more. Certain western defensive positions must remain in place until the threat from Russia has abated. We can do more than we do now to covertly support Russia’s opposition, especially those whose values match our own.
Perhaps most importantly, we can ensure that a lasting Russian victory in Ukraine is not an option and that Putin’s terms will never be met, and that his aggression will never be rewarded.
With such policies, we can actively encourage the Russian people to recognize that their country has no future as long as Putin remains in power. Putin is helping on this front. By undertaking a massive military draft campaign, one that can call in as many as 1 million troops, who are then under-equipped and under-skilled and likely to be victims of a war they have not sought against neighbors who are in no way their enemies, he has already lit the fuse over a possible national backlash. Millions upon millions of Russians will increasingly feel the pain and loss associated with Putin’s war in ways they did not feel before, in ways that Russian propaganda cannot hide or dress.
The protests in Russia are already getting more brutal.
Celebrities and business leaders speak out more clearly. How long will it take for the security forces surrounding and protecting Putin to recognize that he poses a threat to their well-being, to their lives, to the future of their families?
Accepting the reality that Putin has to go is just common sense at this point. When we recognize that reality, we must embrace policies that encourage the conditions that make it a reality. We must also prepare for the consequences of such a change and ensure that we send the message to Moscow that Russia’s neighbors and the community of nations welcome a more responsible Russia – while also making it clear that we are ready to defend ourselves against a Russia making the mistake of continuing (or worsening) Putin’s policies.
As for the argument to the Russian people that they should act, we don’t have to. Putin, with speeches like Friday’s and self-inflicted disasters like Ukraine, is already doing so more convincingly than we could hope.