Tell Russians Putin Has to Go

11 months ago 47

The Wagner mercenary group’s failed mutiny last month revealed that Vladimir Putin, a leader once seen as the strongest of strongmen, may not have as tight a grip on power as previously believed. As Putin seeks to reassert control, speculation is rife about what the attempted insurrection by Wagner’s chief, Yevgeny Prigozhin, means for the future of Putin’s regime—and whether Russia’s adversaries could capitalize on Putin’s moment of weakness.

The Biden administration has a rare opportunity to put added political pressure on Putin by offering the Russian people a path out of the economic and diplomatic isolation from the West to which their country has been subjected for the past 17 months. Putin’s invasion has been nothing short of a disaster for Russia, with more than 50,000 killed and 150,000 wounded, roughly one million of its best and brightest fleeing abroad, an economy slowly being strangled, and the country more isolated on the world stage than it has been in 100 years. Yet public support in Russia for the war and for Putin appears to be holding, according to polling. In part, Russians see little alternative to trudging on. But the United States can lay out a different path. To do so, U.S. President Joe Biden should outline what a post-Putin Russia could look like, just as President Woodrow Wilson formulated a vision for postwar Germany in 1918.

After four years of fighting, one of the many factors that drove Germany to capitulate in the fall of 1918 was a clear message from the United States. Earlier that year, Wilson had promised Germany a “just peace,” outlining a vision of the postwar order in which Germans would be unable to deny the basic rights of other countries—and would itself be afforded those same rights. Wilson told the U.S. Congress in February 1918 that “there shall be no annexations, no contributions, no punitive damages. . . . National aspirations must be respected; peoples may now be dominated and governed only by their own consent.”

The hypocrisy of Wilson’s promise was undeniable, given his racist views and support for Jim Crow laws that enforced racial segregation at home. And if the German high command had known the terms of the peace that they would ultimately be all but forced to accept, they doubtless would have fought on. But Wilson’s pledge that Germany could end the war without humiliation and crushing reparations gave German military leaders something to latch on to as they looked for a way out of an unwinnable war in October 1918, and it ultimately played a role in their decision to initiate regime change in Berlin with the goal of negotiating a less punitive armistice.

Today, by outlining a peace settlement that includes a hopeful future for Russia, Biden might be able to produce a similar outcome by appealing to influential Russians within the halls of power—in the military, governing institutions, and the private sector—who could conceivably set the country on a new course. Biden should not offer this vision in a grandiose Wilsonian speech hailing democracy or a new world order. Instead, he should articulate a number of practical steps that the United States and its allies and partners would take to allow Russia to become a respected member of the international community instead of a pariah state—“a giant North Korea,” as the historian Stephen Kotkin has described what Russia might one day be if it stays on its present course. This promise should come with three conditions: a full withdrawal of Russian forces from all of Ukraine, a pledge to respect Ukraine’s sovereignty and reduce tensions with the West, and the ouster of Putin.

PEACE WITHOUT VICTORY

As the historian Robert Gerwarth explains in his book November 1918: The German Revolution, “Wilson’s ideas for a ‘just peace’ had been of no importance for the strategic considerations” of the German generals Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff between January and September 1918. By November of that year, however, “a moderate ‘Wilsonian peace’ without victors or vanquished was the best Germany could hope for,” Gerwarth writes. By then, Germany was exhausted, both at home and on the front. At home, the German public was suffering food shortages and growing labor unrest. On the battlefield, Allied powers were making advances that reversed Germany’s gains from its successful but costly spring offensive. Morale among German forces was also collapsing, more and more American troops were joining the fight, and Germany’s Austro-Hungarian, Bulgarian, and Ottoman allies were capitulating. In early November, as the German naval command contemplated initiating a final climactic and likely suicidal attack on the British fleet, German sailors mutinied in the city of Kiel, leading to a wider revolution.

As Gerwarth explains, the German high command “understood that the Americans would need some sign of domestic reform before they would negotiate seriously with Germany.” According to Gerwarth, this context is essential for understanding why there was a “sudden ‘change of mind’ about the parliamentarization of the German political system.” Thus, Germany’s top military officers led a “revolution from above,” with Kaiser Wilhelm initiating “a cynical process of ‘democratization.’” Ultimately, the United States conveyed to Germany that to begin armistice negotiations, the Kaiser would have to go—and so he went.

No historical analogy is perfect, especially when used to advance a policy argument. Germany in 1918 had active political parties and a weak leader. It had suffered through four years of war and saw the balance of power on the battlefield shift with the United States’ entry into the war. This is obviously far different from present-day Russia. The deprivation felt in wartime Germany was far more severe than the sanctions-induced challenges facing Russia. There were also active political parties available to take the reins of power. Despite these differences, Wilson’s offer to Germany provides a model for how Biden might convince influential Russians to abandon Putin.

Biden would need to communicate that for Russia to have a path back, it would need to end the war and replace the leadership in the Kremlin. The most important audience for this speech would be Russian elites and insiders from the military, government ministries, and the private sector. The new government in Moscow would need to be willing to reduce hostilities, restore arms control agreements, and release American hostages (such as the journalist Evan Gershkovich and Paul Whelan, a former U.S. marine) and Russian political prisoners (such as Alexei Navalny and Vladimir Kara-Murza). It would also have to be open to repealing the repressive measures that Putin imposed when the war began, which outlawed dissent, criticism, and opposition. Should Russia take these steps, the United States would agree to roll back sanctions and unwind Russia’s diplomatic isolation. The United States would encourage accountability for those culpable for war crimes, not collective punishment.

In his speech, Biden could talk about how he wants to see Russians once again traveling and studying in the United States and Europe; finding jobs, customers, clients, and investors in the West; collaborating with international partners on cutting-edge science research; and competing with pride in next summer’s Olympic Games in Paris. The point would be to paint a portrait of a Russia with a future defined by prosperity and connection with Europe rather than poverty and isolation.

REGIME CHANGE

Such a speech from Biden would assert that the obstacle to the West’s positive relations with Russia is Putin. Biden could remind Russians that when he entered office, he sought to engage and work with Putin, holding a summit in June 2021 with him in Geneva. Months later, Putin launched his unprovoked and brutal invasion of Ukraine. He has demonstrated to Western leaders that he cannot be trusted and therefore cannot broker a lasting peace. He has lost all credibility. The International Criminal Court has issued an arrest warrant for him for alleged war crimes. As long as Putin leads Russia, the United States and Russia will be adversaries and U.S. sanctions will remain in place.

There would be few downsides to delivering such a speech. Of course, Putin would be aghast at an American call for regime change, and the United States would be accused of making the war existential for Putin and thus possibly prolonging it. But the war is already existential for Putin. There is a danger that such a speech would exacerbate his paranoia, seemingly confirming that the United States is out to depose him and exploiting cracks in his regime. He might purge any potential rivals or repeat his threats to use nuclear weapons in response, raising the risk of dangerous escalation.

But Putin isn’t suicidal. His paranoia exists because he wants to survive, not enter a world-ending conflagration. Putin is desperate to portray this war as an epic clash between Russia and the West. The United States should make it a war about Putin.

It should also be expected that such a message will likely have little initial resonance in Russia. Anti-Western sentiment runs deep, and the Russian state media would hardly let a U.S. president’s words pass over its airwaves unfiltered. Yet Russia is not hermetically sealed, especially if the targeted audience for such a speech is not the general public but the Russian elite.

Prigozhin’s march on Moscow has likely spooked many of them, from oligarchs to government technocrats to military officers. Putin visibly lost control, a possibility that had previously been unthinkable. Although the elite owe their status to Putin, they are restless. To many, the invasion of Ukraine was a shockingly reckless decision, and they are feeling the squeeze of sanctions and economic deprivation. A leaked recording from earlier this year between two Russian elites pulled back the curtain, revealing deep dissatisfaction with the Kremlin’s current course. With the war going badly, the Prigozhin affair was another demonstration that the big boss may have lost his touch.

The United States should make it a war about Putin.

This cross section of the Russian elite is not full of brave liberals willing to risk their neck for their country. Instead, it is a group that largely looks out for itself, which for years has meant aligning with Putin. But Prigozhin’s march made it possible to imagine alternatives. Putin has created a system of power that revolves around him, which means that if he goes, so does their access to power and therefore potentially their financial well-being. Prigozhin might have represented a degree of continuity with Putin, being another nationalist hard-liner committed to prosecuting the war. But if he took power, it would have caused disarray in Putin’s court. With Putin’s loss of control, elites in the Russian system are likely thinking about a Plan B. Offering Russia a more hopeful and prosperous future, an alternative to endless war and hard-line nationalism, may be something that those disaffected in the center of power are willing to risk pursuing. They wouldn’t have dared put their necks out until now, but Prigozhin almost got to Moscow.

The prevailing assumption is that a Russian hard-line nationalist would be most likely to replace Putin. But Putin is already a hard-line nationalist. Hard-liners may talk about doubling down on the war, but losses on the battlefield may make these positions increasingly untenable. For instance, mobilizing more men for war could lead to further domestic blowback. More fruitless Russian counteroffensives could be ordered. But that’s what prompted German sailors to mutiny in October 1918, leading to a broader revolution.

How a move against Putin could unfold is impossible to predict, but after Prigozhin, it is now less fantastical to imagine such scenarios. It often takes just a spark. Suppose Russian midranking military officers, appalled by the leadership of their high command and nervously looking to the future of a depleted and broken Russian military, try to seize Biden’s offer of an off-ramp. With the backing of their men, they could refuse to fight or move to depose their leadership. If Putin lost control of Wagner, could he lose control of the army? Government officials in Moscow or at local and regional levels might see the way the wind is blowing and not lift a finger to protect the regime, just as they did nothing to stop Prigozhin. Suppose the public and the troops on the front decide to take matters into their own hands or rally to a Kremlin alternative?

Such developments are a way off and may never come. It took nine months for the Germans to take Wilson up on his offer. Russia would need to believe the war is lost and its position untenable. That requires battlefield success by Ukraine, not a speech by an American president. But planting the seed of an idea with the military, the elites, and the public that there is a way out of this war may end up bearing fruit.

ALTERNATIVE REALITY

The Russian public is struggling with the war. Although public polls indicate that support for the war remains high, Kirill Rogov, a political scientist at the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute, has concluded that when it comes to supporting the war, “the median electorate is internally contradictory, unstable, and unconsolidated. Events can lead to unexpected shifts.” When the Russian media outlet Meduza, which operates outside Russia and is labeled a “foreign agent” by the Kremlin, asked why some of its Russian readers still support the war, one respondent wrote, capturing the mood, “The only thing worse than war is losing one.” There seems to be no alternative to continuing to fight, as losing or capitulation would result in crushing reparations and endless humiliation. The war may have been a mistake, but Russia is in too deep now to just walk away. Americans should be familiar with this feeling of inertia, given their experiences in Afghanistan, Iraq—and, of course, Vietnam. Once in a war, few people want to give up and see their country humiliated. 

Although it is still hard to envision Putin’s being ousted, Prigozhin has reminded the world that anything is possible, even in Moscow. As with Germany in 1918, further defeat on the battlefield is likely necessary before anyone can act to depose Putin, but it is now clear that he is not immune from the effect of events on the front. Thus, continued Ukrainian success on the battlefield and the West’s unwavering resolve to support Ukraine are crucial. After all, Wilson’s words would have had little effect had German commanders not come to see the war as essentially unwinnable.

Forging an acceptable peace with a post-Putin Russia would still be an extremely difficult task. Russia would have to accept Ukraine’s potential membership in the EU and NATO. Poland and the Baltic states would inevitably resist efforts to thaw relations or to roll back EU sanctions. Ukraine would rightly demand justice and reparations for Russian war crimes and destruction. But the reality is that Russia is not going to be fully conquered at the conclusion of this war, making reparations difficult to demand. Ukraine or The Hague will be able to try war criminals only if Russia willingly turns them over.

A proposed settlement to the war that insists on Russia’s weakness or extensive concessions will only strengthen hard-liners inside the country. (It must be noted that Wilson’s ceding control of the Paris peace talks to the French and British led to a punishing settlement that undermined the nascent German democracy and led to the rise of the Nazi Party.) The United States should instead reassure Russians that if they end the war, respect Ukraine’s sovereignty, reduce tensions with the West, and oust Putin, they will be saving their country from defeat and decline and giving Russia a chance to peacefully thrive alongside its neighbors.

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