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Regime change in Russia

President Biden said of Vladimir Putin, “This man cannot stay in power.” The comment was clumsy — yet correct. Russia will remain a pariah until Mr. Putin is removed as president.

US officials have tried to walk back Mr. Biden’s comment. They fear antagonizing Mr. Putin and undermining negotiations to end the war. In fact, their efforts have the unintended consequence of encouraging autocracies. They mistakenly believe that placating Mr. Putin will advance peace negotiations.

In fact, the war in Ukraine will only end when Russian forces are militarily defeated and driven out of the country. Moreover, the virus of Russia’s aggressive nationalism will only be eradicated when the Russian people remove Mr. Putin from office.

I understand the White House’s concerns. The overall goal of US diplomacy has been to avoid escalation, which could put Mr. Putin in a corner and exacerbate the spiral of deadly violence.

However, the US must be steely-eyed, seeing Mr. Putin as he is. Mr. Putin is a butcher and a thug. He is a war criminal whose repugnant acts constitute genocide and crimes against humanity. There is no possibility of détente with a killer like Mr. Putin.

If there’s debate about how to defend Ukraine and other pro-Western democracies, it should be about the modalities of regime change in Russia. US has learned from experience that the US military cannot impose regime change. People who are directly affected must take matters into their own hands.

The US can certainly assist by supporting civil society, independent media, and opposition political parties. Local anti-corruption watchdog groups need support to expose Mr. Putin’s heist of Russian assets. As the leader of the free world, Mr. Biden has a bully pulpit to mobilize opposition.

Domestic dissent is well underway. Russian security forces have detained at least 10,000 anti-war protesters. A bogus Russian court recently extended the prison term by 13 years of Alexei Navalny, the Putin critic and anti-corruption campaigner. Marina Ovsyannikova, a producer of Russia’s state-run Channel One, was arrested after protesting the Ukraine invasion in the middle of a live broadcast. Grandmothers demanding an end to the war are rounded up and detained.

These Russians demand an end to Mr. Putin’s criminal rule and war-mongering foreign policy. They are concerned about the future of their country and children. Regime change is not a western cabal.

Is there an informed person anywhere who believes that Mr. Putin should stay in power? Watching the carpet bombing of Ukrainian cities and indiscriminate attacks on schools, hospitals and residences stirs outrage and compels action. Appeasement is not an option. The US does not want to escalate the conflict. Mr. Putin is volatile, and the costs are great. He has already threatened the first use of nuclear and chemical weapons.

The western response must not, however, be based on fear. Turning a blind eye makes America seem weak while emboldening Mr. Putin to ratchet up attacks.

The Biden administration deserves high praise for its transatlantic diplomatic efforts, leading the humanitarian response, and coordinating security assistance. US global leadership has been enhanced by Mr. Biden’s proactive efforts in Ukraine.

That being said, his principled position must not be undermined by bureaucracy. Instead of clarifying Mr. Biden’s message, US officials should endorse Mr. Biden’s statement and support Russians who oppose crimes committed in their name.

The Biden administration can hasten the war’s end by expanding the scope and types of security assistance. It should not stand in the way of  Sukhoi jets from Poland and other NATO members. Ukrainian officials are pleading for a no-fly zone. If the US is unwilling,  it can still limit Russian airpower by providing surface-to-air missiles that can clear the skies of Russian warplanes.

America’s might is not merely defined by its military or economic capacity. It is measured by American culture and values, which stand in contrast to Putin’s autocracy, fundamentally opposed to human rights and democratic freedoms. “Never Again” cannot be a vapid and meaningless slogan. Georgia and Moldova are especially vulnerable to Russian aggression.

Simply put, Russia’s emancipation requires the removal of Vladimir Putin and the creation of a government accountable to its citizens. Mr. Biden spoke from the heart, vocalizing the feelings of freedom-loving people.

The US is correctly concerned about Mr. Putin’s escalatory actions. It remains to be seen whether Mr. Putin is deterred through strength or accommodation. Experience demonstrates that a bully only responds to strength.

This article was originally published on The Washington Times on March 28, 2022.

Mr. Phillips is the Director of the Program on Peacebuilding and Human Rights at Columbia University. He served as a Senior Adviser and Foreign Affairs Expert at the State Department during the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations.

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David L. Phillips
David L. Phillips
David L. Phillips is Director of the Program on Peacebuilding and Human Rights at Columbia University. He served as a Senior Advisor to the UN Secretariat and as a Senior Adviser and Foreign Affairs Expert at the State Department during the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations.

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