Editor’s note: We endeavor to bring you the top voices on current events representing a range of perspectives. Below is a column arguing that regime change in Russia is a dangerous idea. You can find a counterpoint here, where James Pinkerton argues that Russians should take it upon themselves to oust Vladimir Putin from power.
President Joe Biden said last week, in a cavalier moment that might very well be a defining one of his presidency, that Vladimir Putin cannot remain in power; a comment immediately walked back by concerned staff. But by then, the damage was done.
Democracy and human rights promoters from the left and right, including Gary Kasparov, Bill Kristol, David Rothkopf, Ian Bremmer and various others latched on to this fantastical idea that Russia is bound to be a healthy and happy liberal democracy at peace with the West, only if a “cancer” like Putin (Kasparov’s words) were cut off, and that regime change, while not currently expedient, is perhaps the morally right choice.
This line of thinking is imprudent, dangerous and risks destabilizing whatever gains were made in peace talks in the last few weeks. Ultimately, the idea of a forced “regime change” in Moscow increases further Russian paranoia and leaves the West with no good option.
Russian strategic motivation has always been to keep NATO out of its sphere of influence, partially because it would result in a hostile regime on its border which will, in turn, affect regime stability in Moscow. Russia invaded Ukraine with the core objective of regime change couched in the rhetoric of “denazification.” The Russian authoritarian system suffers from the analytical bubble that plagues all such systems, and it appears that they severely underestimated Ukrainian resolve. Russian tactical mistakes added to that, with top-tier air force assets and the bulk of the navy underused, mostly from stand-off positions. The Russian artillery/armor heavy military doctrine, echoing Soviet-era operational dictates, depended on massive column formations which resulted in severe attrition. The Russian curse of low conscript morale, added with crippling Western sanctions, resulted in a conundrum.
On one hand, Russia cannot manage to extricate itself without accepting loss. Their dash to Kiev failed, the Ukrainian leadership is intact, Ukraine received weapons and funding and Russia now faces a quagmire. Putin cannot continue war unless he shifts from a consumer economy to a command and war economy, and one is not sure he is willing to do that and admit that his punitive campaign failed. The denazification rhetoric has already been quietly dropped, and the only major existential Russian demand that remains is Ukrainian neutrality regarding NATO membership.
However, the Russians are still grinding on and will continue to have the “escalation dominance” advantage in the theatre. Facing the choice between losing face (and power) and escalating, history suggests that authoritarians usually choose the latter. Lacking any incentive to alter course, Putin might revert to a war economy and change operational tactics, and employ his top range assets to brutal effect even though it would result in a pyrrhic victory. Russia also, at the time of writing, controls the entirety of east and south Ukraine, barring the port of Odessa, cutting Ukraine off from the Black Sea. Belarus as a de facto landing ground in the north, implies that despite bloodletting, Russia is nowhere near to a total loss. Given that the ideas of a No Fly Zone or sending fighter jets to Ukraine are both militarily absurd, and that there is only a limit to hardware supply to Ukraine, the war will result in a long-term stalemate with uncounted suffering on both sides.
Regime change in Russia isn’t easy. Russia is not Libya or Iraq. Nor is it a defeated power like the Third Reich or Imperial Japan. It has the world’s highest number of nuclear warheads, a fact often considered vitally important in any equation by the Cold War elders with equilibrium instincts and wisdom, and are often discounted by unipolarists and primacists. It currently has five of the largest non-Western economies on its side, not taking part in sanctions and either actively or tacitly supporting its invasion. In short, external pressure has limits. The second option is influencing Russian regime change from within, with sanctions and civil society pressure. That plan is unlikely to be feasible. Sanctions do not change state behavior, demonstrated by North Korea and Iran, or post-nuclear test India in the late-90s.
The West has also historically overestimated liberal support, electoral and organizational strength, and demand for change from within, in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, the Arab Spring, parts of Eastern Europe, India and China. A hypothetical post-Putin Russia is unlikely to be liberal, and instead might turn more hardline, dictatorial, or worse, see a return of the communists or ultra-nationalists. A potentially unstable or failed state with the world’s largest nuclear stockpile will be similar to reliving the sleepless days of the early nineties, with all the strategic choices that it entailed. Naturally, the logical conclusion should be the same as one reached in the early nineties, that regardless of regime or governance type and ideology, stability in Russia is the paramount western interest, and anarchy is, in this context, far worse than tyranny.
An operational stalemate and subsequent compromise are perhaps the best (although unpalatable) outcome of this conflict, which lets Russia out with some bargain, where Ukraine survives and flourishes as a neutral buffer, imitating Austria during the Cold War. On the other hand, the tragedy of great power politics will mean that any compromise will satisfy no one, and will likely plant the seeds of rival competing national myths, of Ukrainian resistance and plucky heroism in seeing off a much larger foe “alone,” of a new Russian backstabbing myth about incompetent generals, of NATO choking off Russia, and such.
To push for “regime change” will further destabilize an already sulking great power wounded by her own folly. It would be the groundwork for potential future conflicts, resulting in further Russian isolationism and the rise of hardliners; a start of the next “Twenty Years Crisis.” Prudent realist statecraft should seek to compromise, negotiate and prevent that from happening.
Dr. Sumantra Maitra (@MrMaitra) is a national-security fellow at the Center for the National Interest, and an elected early career historian member at the Royal Historical Society.