Regime Change in Russia: What If the US Really Wanted to Depose Putin?

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Joe Biden arrive for the U.S.-Russia Summit at Villa La Grange in Geneva, Switzerland, June 16, 2021. (Saul Loeb/Pool via Reuters)

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

(Biden today insisted he didn’t go back on anything he said, then went back further: “I’m not going back. The fact is, I have expressed my moral outrage at the way Putin is acting, this man’s actions, sheer brutality… But I want to make it clear that I wasn’t then, and I’m not articulating a policy change now . I have expressed the moral outrage I feel and I make no apologies for it.)

If the US did If we wanted to make a policy change and remove Vladimir Putin from power, what would we do? What can we do?

Assassination? We’ve seen in history how often things go horribly wrong. Putin has been paranoid about assassination attempts for years and has used food tasters since at least 2012. The attempt to assassinate Putin would have little chance of success, and any exposure of the plot would be catastrophic for the United States; the Russian government could, and probably would, interpret the assassination or attempted assassination as an act of war.

Speaking of war, could the US treat Vladimir Putin like Saddam Hussein? No, that’s logistically impossible; not even all of NATO together has enough manpower to invade and subdue all of Russia.

The best course of action would be to stir up Russian public dissatisfaction with Putin and hope that a popular uprising will oust him from power. One could argue that the sweeping economic sanctions imposed on Russia are a backdoor attempt at that outcome; The hope is that the economic pain will get so bad that the Russian people will decide they’ve had enough of Putin’s invasion and all-out belligerence and find a way to remove him from power.

In recent weeks we have seen some bold and surprisingly widespread Russian protests against the invasion of Ukraine. No doubt many Russians see that the invasion is having a disastrous impact on their country and want nothing to do with Putin’s aggressive agenda. But so far, these protests appear to be nothing that Putin’s sweeping, ironclad security state can’t handle. Quite substantial anti-Putin protests have come and gone over the past few decades, and Putin’s grip on power has remained as strong as ever.

Funding opposition groups secretly? More efforts to break through Putin’s propaganda wall? Attempts to widen divisions in Russian society and encourage the formation of splinter factions? Any of these options could theoretically one day become a tipping point that spurs Russians to rise up against Putin, but they’re not particularly likely to work, and they certainly won’t work quickly. Brutal dictators rarely fall without a fight. Sometimes people rise up dissatisfied and results like the fall of the Berlin Wall or the Romanian Revolution of 1989. And sometimes people rise up dissatisfied and it comes to Tiananmen Square or the protests against the Iranian mullahs in recent years .

There aren’t many good options – and we have particularly good reasons to be a little more cautious or less provocative when dealing with a regime that possesses nuclear weapons. Yes, many Americans wish someone else would run Russia. We wish someone nicer than Xi Jinping ran China, and someone nicer than Kim Jong Un ran North Korea, and someone nicer than the mullahs ran Iran. But they’re not, which means we’ll have to figure out how to further our interests in a world where these thugs in foreign capitals run the show. Opposing a regime – and exposing how it is governing against the will of the people – is not the same as taking active action to overthrow that regime. Maybe we can give one of those regimes a sneak peek when they start looking shaky.

Even if the US wanted to depose Vladimir Putin, they have no realistic plans to do so. And presidents probably shouldn’t be blurting out rambling ideas because they’re angry.

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