When Senator Lindsey Graham suggested last week that someone should assassinate Vladimir Putin as a means of resolving the international crisis over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, he was rightly raked over the coals for making such a breathtakingly irresponsible statement. The last thing the world needs right now is to make Putin even more paranoid than he already is. Indeed, the Biden administration has taken pains not to appear to endorse “regime change” in Moscow. Secretary of State Antony Blinken navigated that question carefully in an interview on Sunday: “For us, it’s not about regime change. That’s — the Russian people have to decide who they want to lead them.”
Yet beneath Graham’s recklessness, his ill-conceived tweet reflects a fantasy that has surely crossed everyone’s mind in recent days: Wouldn’t it be nice if Putin would just disappear? After all, if the Russian president somehow vanished from the earth tomorrow, peace in Ukraine would suddenly look a lot more achievable. In the bigger picture, Putin’s absence would clear a path for Russia to pivot away from his aggressive, neo-imperialist campaign of revenge against the post–Cold War world order.
Unfortunately for Ukraine and Russia, Putin seems to have no intention of changing course, no matter how badly the war is going for him. Until Monday, statements from Putin and his top officials repeatedly indicated that he was unwilling to talk peace under any conditions except the total surrender and capitulation of Ukraine — or, in Putin’s parlance, “demilitarization and denazification.” The Kremlin on Monday softened its tone somewhat, saying Russia would stop the assault if Ukraine “ceases its military action” (whatever that means in the context of a country under siege), recognizes Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea and the separatist pseudo-states in Donetsk and Luhansk, and amends its constitution to declare that it will never join any alliance (i.e., NATO).
This new list of demands may seem like a step-down and may even be a sign that Putin is afraid of losing this war, but it remains a threat, not an offer: Cede territory we captured by force (and make it easy for us to take more of your territory later), or the carnage will continue. The effort to frame this as a reasonable compromise is likely a ploy to make Kyiv reject the deal (which it has) and use that as justification for further escalation.
It should be clear to Putin by now that the Ukrainians will absolutely not allow him to turn their country back into a Russian vassal state, no matter how much damage the invasion does. Yet it is hard to see him pulling his forces out of Ukraine without his desired pound of flesh. As the unstoppable force of Putin’s intransigence meets the immovable object of the Ukrainian people’s resolve, the outcome will be an endless stream of bloodshed and destruction.
In this context, it is understandable to wish for a world in which Putin is out of the picture — though, for several reasons, it would be better if that happened through a less violent means than assassination. And it’s not wrong to point out that it’s up to the Russian people themselves to make that happen. This raises three key questions: First, is there (or will there be) enough anti-Putin sentiment in Russia to make that possible? Second, who in Russia actually has the ability to topple the president, and would they actually do it? And finally, what can the U.S. and NATO do to nudge Russia toward a post-Putin era without explicitly advocating regime change?
Under Putin, Russia has become what political scientists call a “personalist dictatorship,” wherein power is concentrated primarily or exclusively in one individual. This means there are no real mechanisms for other arms of the Russian state to veto Putin’s decisions or take away his ability to make them. Putin’s closest associates and advisers are either fanatically loyal or cowed into submission, and he doesn’t hear the word no from them often. This makes it extremely difficult to influence his decisions through outside pressure, much less to sideline him. At the same time, it underscores how different things could be in Moscow if he were no longer in power.
One potential route to Putin’s overthrow would be a popular uprising, but the most apparent obstacle to that is his widespread popularity. While it’s hard to know what to make of public-opinion polling in an authoritarian police state, the independent Levada Center put his level of public support at 71 percent in February before the invasion began. The impact of the war and the international response to it have yet to be captured fully in surveys. However, large segments of the Russian population appear to be either affirmatively pro Putin, checked out politically, or afraid to express a negative opinion about the government.
Despite increasingly draconian laws making it more difficult and dangerous to protest, thousands of Russians have been taking to the streets to demonstrate against the war in Ukraine (which they are no longer legally allowed to call a “war” at all). On Sunday, more than 4,600 people were detained at demonstrations in at least 65 Russian cities, and more than 13,000 protesters have been detained nationwide since the war began, according to the rights group OVD-Info. Antiwar activism is heavily repressed in Russia, but many Russians are trying to make their voices heard. In addition to public protests, online petitions have circulated, groups of professionals have issued open letters against the war (and been fired for it), and even micro-schisms in the Russian Orthodox church are happening.
Unfortunately, most Russians are able to see this war only through the lens of state propaganda. The surreal alternate reality they see on television is one in which Ukraine is run by drug-addicted neo-Nazis who are committing genocide against Russian speakers, seek to arm Ukraine with nuclear and biological weapons, and are pawns in an American-led scheme to threaten Russia with nuclear war. According to the propaganda, Russia is not bombing or shelling any Ukrainian civilians; instead, they are being killed by their own Nazi government in false-flag operations or being used as human shields. Also, Ukrainian soldiers don’t actually want to fight Russia and have been surrendering en masse. Anything you see that contradicts this narrative is “fake news” and disinformation doctored up by the pro-Nazi West.
Meanwhile, the Kremlin has launched an unprecedented crackdown on any information that contradicts the official narrative on the war. It has blocked access to Facebook, forced independent Russian media outlets to close, and passed a law that makes spreading “fake” information about the military punishable by up to a 15-year prison sentence. That law prompted most foreign media organizations to suspend their operations in Russia and an overnight exodus of journalists from the country. Russians who aren’t actively looking for alternatives to the government’s narrative may not encounter them at all.
There is some cause for hope, in that the Kremlin’s obsession with choking off antiwar sentiment belies a real fear that the truth will out. Even if only from exile, independent journalists continue to report facts and try to overcome Putin’s fire wall of bullshit. Western governments and companies should do everything they can to help those messages get through.
To that end, President Joe Biden and his administration have been working diligently and thoughtfully to speak directly to the Russian people and support the domestic antiwar movement — while, again, treading carefully to avoid the appearance of promoting regime change. Meanwhile, the decisions by media platforms like Netflix and TikTok to suspend their services in Russia in response to the new “fake news” law, though understandably motivated by concerns for the safety of their users and employees, may do more harm than good if this means Russians have fewer ways to access independent information.
The other, perhaps more straightforward path to Putin’s downfall from within would be a sort of palace coup by Russia’s ruling elites: either its business leaders and/or the political-military Establishment.
One rationale behind the economic sanctions levied against Russia is that they will diminish the fortunes of the country’s elite businessmen. The hope was that if sanctions could turn the Russian oligarchy against Putin, it might use its influence to push him out or at least force him to abandon the war. The sanctions are hitting Russian elites hard, and at least a few of them have publicly broken ranks with Putin.
Unfortunately, the oligarchs don’t have as much influence over the Russian state as they used to: At this point, they are much more dependent on Putin than he is on them. They retain the wealth they plundered in the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s collapse because Putin has let them, with the understanding that he could make it all go away.
Russian political leaders have been even more reluctant to contradict the party line, though that doesn’t mean they aren’t anxious in private. According to Russian journalist Farida Rustamova, “the mood in the corridors of power is not at all happy. Many are in a state of near-paralysis.” It seems most officials outside the small circle closest to Putin were blindsided by his decision to launch a full-scale invasion of Ukraine and are now very worried about the consequences. They also did not foresee the severity of the sanctions the U.S. and European countries have imposed and were not prepared for the devastating impact they have had on the Russian economy.
But like the oligarchs, these politicians may not have much power to push Putin aside even if they wanted to. Rustamova’s sources say the only people who even knew about the plan to invade were defense minister Sergei Shoigu, chief of the general staff Valery Gerasimov, and a select few intelligence officials. One source, whom Rustamova describes as “a good acquaintance of Putin’s,” suggested these men are pushing Putin’s buttons, if not pulling his strings. “Putin now seriously believes what Shoigu and Gerasimov are telling him: about how quickly they’ll take Kyiv, that the Ukrainians are blowing themselves up, that Zelenskyy is a coke addict,” the source told her.
Herein lies the obstacle to an elite uprising against Putin: He has concentrated power tightly within a brain trust of mostly ex-KGB types like himself, many of whom are drinking from the same pitcher of imperial revisionist Kool-Aid. The prime minister and other cabinet members whose roles would make them highly influential in most governments aren’t part of the inner circle. For Putin to step down, either his inner circle would need to persuade him or a broader group of elites would need to come together and arrange for the hasty retirement of the entire Putin gang.
Still, just because an internal ouster of Putin seems unlikely or difficult, that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be gently encouraged. To that end, the U.S., E.U., and NATO should all be making plans for how to deal with a post-Putin Russia — and those plans should be made as attractive as possible to Russians. Let them know that if their government ceases its aggression against Ukraine and abandons its bellicose posture, the country will be welcomed back into the European and international communities. If Russia continues along the course Putin has set, however, it will remain a pariah state, cut off from the global economy and totally dependent on China just to stay afloat. Continue to emphasize that the hardship they are facing is a direct consequence of Putin’s choices and that the world has no quarrel with Russia qua Russia.
As long as Putin remains in power, of course, diplomatic efforts to end the war and mitigate its humanitarian costs must be directed at him and his government. At some point, though, it may be worthwhile to start talking past him as well, or at least indicate that we are prepared to do so. Russian military and political figures outside Putin’s inner circle should get the message that Ukraine and its supporters in the West are prepared to talk peace with a good-faith partner in Moscow. If their current leadership doesn’t fit that description, well, that’s a problem that can be solved.
More on the Ukraine crisis
- U.S. Tanks Are on Their Way to Fight Russians in Ukraine
- Ukraine’s Latest Arms Haul: Thanks But No Tanks
- Ian Bremmer on How Putin, Xi, and Elon Musk Are Alike