“For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power.”
Those were the words of President Biden in Warsaw, Poland, a month after Vladimir Putin sent Russian forces into Ukraine for the second time since its 2014 invasion of Eastern Ukraine and Crimea.
As often happens with Biden’s off-the-cuff exclamations, however (such as his four public statements committing America to defend Taiwan), administration officials rushed to clarify that the president was not announcing a new U.S. policy.
“The President’s point was that Putin cannot be allowed to exercise power over his neighbors or the region. He was not discussing Putin’s power in Russia, or regime change,” explained a White House spokesperson.
It was the same assurance of regime continuity that U.S. administrations routinely give to the world’s tyrants in the name of avoiding provocation and escalation, no matter how horrendous the treatment of their own people or how aggressive their behavior toward neighbors or the United States.
It might be called the Reverse Iraq Syndrome. The overthrow of Saddam Hussein after America’s invasion of Iraq in 2002 is widely seen as a major foreign policy mistake of the George W. Bush administration — this, despite Saddam’s multiple wars against other countries; his fostering of terrorist activities; his criminal persecution of his own populace, especially ethnic minorities; and his early development of weapons of mass destruction, which he apparently had abandoned by the time of the U.S. invasion.
Since Biden’s retracted regime change comment, reminiscent of the Obama-Biden declaration that Syria’s Bashar Assad “must go,” Putin has only expanded his brutal invasion of Ukraine. The Russian dictator stands accused of committing war crimes, killing hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian and Russian soldiers and thousands of Ukrainian men, women and children, displacing millions more, and destroying scores of historic cities — all in a systematic effort to obliterate Ukraine’s culture, language and national identity through cultural and actual genocide.
After Putin’s latest atrocity — the wanton bombing of apartment complexes in Kyiv and other cities that killed more than a score of innocent civilians, including elderly persons and children — Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky said, “The evil state once again demonstrates its essence, just killing people in broad daylight, ruining, destroying all life.”
Following an earlier Russian attack on urban areas, Ukrainian first lady Olena Zelenska said, “Ruining lives of others is a disgusting habit of our neighbors. But we will persevere.”
As Biden blurted out over a year ago, Putin must go — but how? Certainly not by a Ukrainian or Western invasion of Russia. Biden trembled at the prospect of even a NATO no-fly zone: “That’s World War III.”
Ukraine reportedly tried a surgical assassination strike against Putin last week, but the bomb-carrying drone fell short of the target and Putin’s tight security arrangements make such an operation’s chances of succeeding remote. Even if Putin were to meet with some deliberate or accidental fatal event, would his “evil state” expire with him? Or, does it comprise an entire governmental establishment that shares his brutal methods and aggressive lust to expand Russia’s territorial and ideological ambitions? If the German plotters had succeeded in killing Hitler, would the Nazi system have collapsed?
Even if eliminating Putin were not sufficient by itself to end Russia’s murderous campaign, removing Russia’s ultimate leader would significantly weaken the regime, perhaps fatally. Zelensky recognizes the inherent connection between Putin’s actions and his tenure in power. But, where Biden said his power must end before the war can, Zelensky saw the war as the very basis for Putin’s authority.
“All this war that you are waging — you, Russia — it is not the war with NATO, as your propagandists lie,” Zelensky said. “It is not for something historical. It’s for one person to remain in power until the end of his life.”
For both, ending Putin’s regime effectively would end the war. But, if intrusive Western military action against the Russian state is off the table, and a targeted attack on Putin’s person is a virtual impossibility, what is the instrument for Putin’s departure?
The answer to regime change in Russia must come from the Russian people. The West can help by deploying its most potent weapon, the one that brought down the Iron Curtain: the truth.
When Ronald Reagan declared the Soviet Union the “Evil Empire,” it brought mocking comments from some in the West who found the black-and-white moralism puerile. But, behind the Iron Curtain, people in the cities and villages, the gulags and jail cells, heard those words from the American president and were moved — inspired that someone important outside the dismal and desperate world forced upon them knew the difference between right and wrong, good and evil, freedom and slavery.
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Biden has been forthright in rebutting Putin’s justifications of his barbaric behavior, but he must lead a concerted Western campaign of truth-telling directed at the Russian people to support those who seek a new path forward. They must be convinced that Putin’s aggression is not only inherently evil, but is doomed to fail.
The Ukrainian people have proved their courage, competence and commitment to their own freedom. The West must give them — now — all the weapons they need to decisively defeat Putin’s aggression.
Joseph Bosco served as China country director for the secretary of Defense from 2005 to 2006 and as Asia-Pacific director of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief from 2009 to 2010. He served in the Pentagon when Vladimir Putin invaded Georgia and was involved in Department of Defense discussions about the U.S. response. Follow him on Twitter @BoscoJosephA.
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