Why any US push for regime change in Moscow is a bad idea
On March 26, President Joe Biden clearly called for regime change in Russia, saying that, “For God’s sake, this man [Putin] cannot remain in power.” While Biden’s staff tried to walk back his statement, there seems little doubt that it reflects a widespread view in the Biden administration and the U.S., British, and Canadian establishments more generally.
This view is very understandable given the evil of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. Whether it is sensible to make this the goal of Western policy towards Russia is a very different matter. There are two essential conditions for Putin’s replacement. First, it should be a Russian matter, not driven by the United States — because otherwise, the succeeding regime will be permanently burdened by a Weimar-style perception of treason and defeat. Second, it should be a controlled, not a revolutionary process — because in present circumstances, a revolution in Russia is far more likely to lead to a government of the fascistic right than a liberal one.
First and foremost however, if Putin and his inner circle believe that the West’s intention is to overthrow them whatever they do, then all incentive on their part to reach a compromise peace in Ukraine will disappear. In the worst-case scenario, they might resort to the use of nuclear weapons to save the regime (and as they would doubtless convince themselves, the Russian state itself).
As far as the Russian people are concerned, even many who have come to detest the regime for its corruption and criminality worry deeply that given the underlying weaknesses of the Russian state, forced and uncontrolled regime change could lead to the catastrophic weakening of the state itself, leading to another period of anarchy and economic collapse.
That may indeed be the hope of Western hardliners; but if so, they should think seriously about the impact of such a collapse on security in Eurasia and especially the radical Islamist threat to the West. In any case, fear of state collapse driven by America is likely to consolidate, not reduce, support for the regime among Russians. We should hardly forget that in the great majority of cases where Washington has used economic sanctions in an effort to produce regime change — Cuba, Venezuela, Iraq, Iran, and North Korea — that strategy has failed.
Western hardliners who want to weaken or destroy Russia appear to have no real interest in the character of a post-Putin regime, let alone the wellbeing of the Russian or Ukrainian peoples. For them, it is enough that Russia as a state should be crippled. Other observers (Russian liberals as well as Westerners) have come to believe that Putin is so evil that whatever replaces him simply has to be better.
If only this were true. Tragically, if there is one lesson that the European and Russian history of the last century should teach us, it is that however bad things may be, they can almost always get even worse. Bad as Putin is, he is by no means the worst leader that Russia might throw up, especially in the circumstances of the increasingly harsh nationalist extremism generated by the war in Ukraine. It is entirely possible given the present mood in Russia that even a popularly-elected successor to Putin might be even more recklessly aggressive.
In this context, U.S. analysts should also carefully examine the history of U.S.-backed coups in various parts of the world, and the unforeseen and awful consequences that often resulted — a history magisterially critiqued by Stephen Kinzer. In her careful analysis of US-backed coups, “Covert Regime Change,” Lindsey O’Rourke says that one of the two necessary criteria for Washington to support regime change is the ability “to identify a plausible domestic political alternative to the target regime.” If you are going to remove a leader because of unsolvable policy differences, there must be the promise of a new leader that “share[s your] policy preferences.”
In the case of Russia, no such promise exists. In the first place, precisely those Western hardliners who are advocating regime change are also demanding what amounts to complete Russian surrender in Ukraine: the abandonment not only of the new territory that Russia has conquered in this war, but the separatist Donbas republics that Russia has backed since 2014, and — most importantly of all — Crimea, which was transferred from Russia to Ukraine by the Soviet leadership in 1954. Russia re-annexed Crimea in 2014, and now contains the key Russian naval base of Sevastopol and the vast majority of Russians now regard it as Russian national territory.
No Russian government could agree to surrender Crimea short of complete military defeat. Even opposition leader Alexei Navalny has only spoken of the possibility of a new referendum there to confirm the inhabitants’ desire to join Russia. And any government which did give up Crimea would live thereafter as a regime of defeat and surrender. Such a government would be very unlikely to last very long.
Those Western (and Russian liberal) commentators who believe in the possibility of a pro-Western successor to Putin are in some respects making the same mistake as those who demand that Russia become a “normal nation-state.” They are ignoring the power of nationalism, which dominates throughout the former Soviet bloc. The entire eastward expansion of NATO and the European Union since the end of the Cold War, and the reconstruction of states that it has entailed, has been powered very largely by local ethnic nationalisms; which in some cases (Poland and Hungary), with Western protection secured, have become virulently hostile to contemporary Western liberal democratic culture.
Russia, under both Yeltsin and Putin, inherited by contrast the state nationalism of the USSR (and even of the Russian empire that preceded it). This has had bad and good effects. On the bad side, it has meant that Russia has inherited the imperial character and ambitions of those states. On the other hand, it has meant that within Russia, unlike in Hungary, Poland or the Baltic States, the state has not yet become narrowly ethnic nationalist; which has been very fortunate indeed for Russia’s ethnic and religious minorities.
In an essay published in 2012, Putin himself wrote of Russia as an innately multi-ethnic and multi-religious state (albeit with Russian language and culture as the central element), and he warned that Russian ethnic chauvinism would destroy the Russian Federation. In keeping with this belief, Putin’s regime and its top economic elites have been thoroughly multi-ethnic, and the cultural traditions of Russia’s autonomous republics have been respected. There is no guarantee that this would continue to be the case under Putin’s successor.
As far as relations with the West are concerned, Putin has clearly now shifted to an extremely hostile position. Previously, however, this was not so. For a long time, Putin often sought to portray Russia as a kind of “third West” (alongside the two Wests of America and Europe); culturally and politically distinct, but part of the Western world.
Above all, Putin sought to appeal to France and Germany against America — something which in the view of hardliners within the Russian regime (now widely called “the Party of War”) led him to act in 2014 with far greater military restraint towards Ukraine than he should have done. Today, these same people are said to be advocating a terrifying escalation of the war in Ukraine. If they replace Putin this would not be better for anyone.
American advocates of regime change should remember both the unpredictable and sometimes terrible results of U.S.-inspired regime change elsewhere in the world; and America’s absolutely awful record of trying to manage Russian internal affairs in the 1990s. That effort helped to produce Putin’s regime; a repeat performance could produce something even worse.