Why we must tackle the threat posed by Putin and his authoritarianism head on.
The best hope for democracy in Russia—and all of Eurasia—is for the international community to support Ukraine in its efforts to defeat Vladimir Putin.
The stakes for Ukraine, Russia, and the entire globe, for that matter, are enormous. If Ukraine can deliver Putin a fatal blow for his disastrous decision to launch a wholly unprovoked and unjustified invasion of Russia’s neighbor, it would be not only a victory over Putinism but a huge and much-needed boost to democracy around the world.
Russia has zero prospects of becoming more democratic as long as Putin remains in power. His departure from the scene would by no means guarantee the transition to a democratic Russia, but it would for the first time in decades afford the country the possibility of moving in that direction. It would also give other countries in the region breathing room to plant democratic roots.
Following a visit to Kyiv on April 24 with U.S. secretary of state Antony Blinken, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin stated, “We want to see Russia weakened to the degree that it can’t do the kinds of things that it has done in invading Ukraine. So it has already lost a lot of military capability and a lot of its troops, quite frankly. And we want to see them not have the capability to very quickly reproduce that capability.” The remarks, delivered Monday, were carefully planned.
Previously, at the end of a March visit to Europe to rally support for Ukraine and sanctions against the Putin regime, U.S. president Joe Biden ended a speech in Warsaw with nine ad-libbed words about Putin: “For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power.”
White House staffers and others in the administration were quick to decry any policy change intended by those remarks. And yet Biden wasn’t announcing a new U.S. policy seeking regime change in Russia; he was expressing his disgust with the abhorrent war crimes committed by Putin and his forces. While saying so publicly might have been impolitic to some, who would want Putin to remain in power?
Critics of both Austin’s and Biden’s comments have asserted that they would play into Putin’s hands, turn the situation into a U.S.-Russia confrontation, and alienate current and potential allies, such as India. Yet Putin already believed that the United States wanted to overturn his regime and was his number-one threat, and Biden had already dubbed Putin a war criminal, thug, and murderer. So should the American president hope that Putin sticks around?
Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is much bigger than just a Russian-Ukrainian conflict: It’s a battle between democracy and authoritarianism playing out on Ukrainian land, with tragic results for many Ukrainian people.
Why wouldn’t we want to weaken Russian forces so that they can never again commit the atrocities we see every day in Ukraine? Let’s also be clear: India, dependent on Russia for arms sales, is not on board with sanctions and continues to import Russian energy; neither Biden’s nor Austin’s comments will push the country any further away from its current shameful, unprincipled approach. Allies that support the sanctions regime should welcome aspirations to prevent a repeat of Putin’s aggression—not turn them into a cause for concern.
Weakening Russia by helping Ukraine to defend its land and freedom is the right, moral thing to do. Reducing Putin’s ability to threaten democracies in neighboring states as well as in his own country also serves U.S national-security interests. It sends a strong signal to other authoritarian regimes, especially the one in Beijing, that the democratic community of nations will not back down in defense of freedom and the concepts of sovereignty and territorial integrity.
All the better if Putin is weakened politically at home, albeit with an important caveat: A desperate Putin might resort to desperate measures—including, possibly, the use of weapons of mass destruction.
“Given the potential desperation of President Putin and the Russian leadership, given the setback they’ve faced so far militarily, none of us can take lightly the threat posed by a potential resort to tactical nuclear weapons or low-yield nuclear weapons,” CIA director William J. Burns warned earlier this month.
But we cannot be paralyzed by fear of such a scenario—that’s what Putin is striving for. Despite much bluster from the Kremlin and Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, Putin seems uninterested in picking a direct fight with any NATO member state and especially with the United States. Russia’s abysmal military performance in Ukraine—even if Putin isn’t fully aware of how badly things have gone—reinforces his need to contain the fighting to Ukraine. That said, Moldova, which like Ukraine is not a NATO member, needs to be on guard for possible spillover effects from the fighting in Ukraine.
Putin’s fear of a successful, vibrant, democratic Ukraine on Russia’s border is the real reason for the invasion. Nothing scares Putin more than for Ukraine to become a successful alternative model to the rotten, authoritarian system he oversees in Russia.
Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky’s offer for Ukraine to take on neutral status belies those who argue that NATO’s enlargement is the cause of the latest conflict. Putin has shown no interest in accepting Zelensky’s proposal. Instead, he wants to destroy Ukraine, decapitate its leadership, and leave it an absolute mess. Putin seeks to deny Ukraine agency to determine its own political system and foreign-policy orientation. He might have succeeded were it not for the tremendous courage and determination of the Ukrainian people and Zelensky.
Putin backs like-minded dictator Alyaksandr Lukashenka in neighboring Belarus because he worries that regime change there as a result of peaceful, popular movements might give Russians a similar idea. It is why Putin seeks to undermine Moldova’s current government, the most pro-Western and promising in that country’s history. It is why he keeps his hand in Georgia through that country’s oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili, who made his fortune in Russia. It is why he views any democracy along Russia’s borders as a threat, especially given the stagnation of Russia’s economy and the prospect, dispiriting for many Russians, that he could remain in power until 2036 after rigging amendments to the constitution in 2020.
The human-rights situation inside Russia is the worst it has been in decades, by far. It is reasonable these days to describe Russia as a totalitarian state, given the elimination of the last vestiges of independent media—Ekho Moskvy radio, Dozhd TV, and Novaya Gazeta newspaper—the tightening grip on the internet, the arrests of anyone who speaks out of line—most recently, courageous activist Vladimir Kara-Murza—and prosecutions of anyone who describes what Russia is doing in Ukraine as a “war” or “invasion” or disparages Russia’s military performance. Opposition leader Aleksei Navalny sits in prison after being brought up on new, spurious charges to try to keep him out of Russian politics.
Putin’s isolation and corruption lead him to do the only thing he knows how: crack down even more. Putin attaches no value to human life—recall how he came to power after four suspicious bombings in 1999, when he was prime minister, that killed some 300 Russians. In response to that, Putin unleashed a brutal campaign against Chechnya, which took thousands of innocent Russian citizens’ lives (Chechens, after all, are Russian citizens) and leveled Grozny, the Chechen capital. Putin repeated this approach in Syria, where Russian forces destroyed Aleppo and engaged in alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity there. In between, of course, Putin invaded Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine, the first time, in 2014.
Putin has the blood of thousands of people on his hands. He clearly doesn’t care about the welfare of his troops, though he is sensitive to the return of body bags to Russia and funerals around the country. This explains the secrecy over Russian casualties and the mobile crematoria that have been deployed, not just to cover up the war crimes in places such as Bucha but also to hide those Russians killed in action.
As long as Putin remains in power, the international community cannot return to business as usual. Given the war crimes perpetrated by Russian forces in Ukraine, the world cannot ease up on sanctions or return Russia’s foreign currency reserves; those funds should go toward reparations for Ukraine. The West should have sanctioned Russian oligarchs long before the invasion of Ukraine, given how their ill-gotten gains corrupt financial systems, drive up real estate prices, and pollute politics. How many more countries does Putin need to invade? How many more Ukrainians, Georgians, Syrians, and fellow Russians does Putin need to kill? And how much worse must the conditions inside Russia get before we reach the conclusion that Putin is an existential threat and the obstacle for any hope of positive change in Russia and beyond?
It is often said that it’s up to Russians to determine their leaders and their future. After Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, that argument holds less water. At a minimum, it’s up to Western countries to end their enabling behavior and actions that offer Putin and his regime invaluable lifelines. But the responsibility goes beyond that. Austin and Biden are right to hope for a Russia that won’t invade its neighbors and for Russian leadership that doesn’t view democracy—and, by extension, the democratic community of nations—as a threat.
Some will argue that a more explicit policy calling for a weakening of Russia will play into Putin’s hands and unite the Russian people behind him, while alienating a whole population against the West. To address this, the United States needs a more effective messaging strategy to explain to Russians that the pains resulting from sanctions and the isolation of Russia are entirely the doing of Putin. Russians also need more reliable information about what is happening on the ground in Ukraine, both about the atrocities being committed by Russian forces and the losses of Russians sent fighting there. All they have been getting so far is a distorted picture from the Kremlin.
Moreover, whether we realize it or not, we are at war, albeit an undeclared one, with Russia. If defeating Russia in Ukraine is our objective, then with that defeat comes the risk of humiliation for Russians. Making clear that our problem is with Putin—he, after all, is the one who decided to invade Ukraine—and holding out the possibility of improved relations once he and his ilk are gone from power are ways to allay this concern.
The alternative to Putin, of course, may not be better—but then again, it just might be. What we do know is that Putin and the current regime are a dangerous threat. Defeating Putin as quickly as possible would reassure Russia’s neighbors and inject hope among Russian liberals who courageously call for a better, brighter future in their country. It would also be a huge blow to authoritarianism more broadly. Defending human rights and democracy is critically important, but at the end of the day not enough. We must tackle the threat posed by Putin and his authoritarianism head on and recognize them for the evil they are.
If Putin is defeated in Ukraine, we will have Ukrainians to thank more than anyone. They have shown tremendous heroism and bravery and demonstrated what it means to fight to defend one’s freedom and country, at enormous costs.
Helping Ukraine succeed as a vibrant democracy and assisting other neighbors of Russia move in a more democratic direction will redound to Russia’s benefit, if not to Putin’s, in the long run. Indeed, one of the best ways to boost any hope of democracy in Russia is by supporting democracy along Russia’s borders. If Russia had more democratic neighbors, it would realize huge payoffs from having more prosperous, stable partners next door. Putin, of course, sees that as a real and present danger. He does not want stable democracies on Russia’s border because that would undermine his interests and grip on power.
Russia’s future, and that of the region, depends almost entirely on what happens in Ukraine. Will that future be authoritarian, or will it be democratic? This is the fight at hand.
David J. Kramer is managing director for global policy at the George W. Bush Institute and served as assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor in the George W. Bush administration.
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