Putin with Russian Olympic team

Hoping for a Russia Without Putin: Biden Wasn’t the First, or the Last

May 26, 2022
RM Staff

Earlier this spring U.S. President Joe Biden used his speech in Warsaw to launch a blistering attack on Russian President Vladimir Putin for ordering the ongoing invasion of Ukraine. “For God's sake, this man cannot remain in power,” the U.S. leader said at the end of his address. Almost immediately, White House staff rushed to downplay Biden’s apparently off-script remarks, which drew a mixed reaction in Western Europe, admiration in Ukraine and alarm in Russia. "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," a White House official said soon after. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken bluntly declared that “we do not have a strategy of regime change in Russia.”

These assurances, however, have failed to rein in the long-running debate among Western (and Russian) commentators on whether Putin should leave the Kremlin and how, with some warning the U.S. and its allies against hopes for regime change in Russia and others advocating for policies that would “accelerate Putin’s exit.” Nor were the administration’s explanations likely to assuage Russian authorities’ long-held view (partly based on the assumption that commentators reflect their governments’ policy ideas) that the West is, indeed, seeking regime change in Russia, if not Putin’s assassination.

Below is an evolving compilation of comments by Western and Russian academics, analysts, journalists and politicians who state or suggest that the world would be better off with Putin out of power, or at least try to explain the thinking of those who hold such a view. While we searched for comments made since Putin’s return to the Kremlin in May 2012 (which Biden publicly advised against), the earliest examples we found from Westerners are from 2014, after Moscow’s annexation of Crimea. The examples are arranged, for the most part, in chronological order from oldest to most recent. As readers will see, the commentators’ rationale varies widely.

Former Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov (quoted and paraphrased): “Tens of thousands of anti-government protesters marched in Moscow … rejecting the legitimacy of President Vladimir Putin and demanding new elections, a prominent opposition leader said. ‘We believe that his presidency right now is not legitimate at all,’ former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov told CNN from the rally. … The only thing that Putin should do now is ‘sit with us … and discuss the terms and conditions of his departure,’ Kasyanov said.” (CNN, 06.12.12)

Financial Times Editorial Board: “An improvement in the international climate is nevertheless unlikely without political change in Russia. For what makes Mr. Putin so confrontational on the world stage is, at bottom, an awareness that Russia's post-communist attempt at building a modern state and society is running into the sands.” (FT, 07.30.14)

The Washington Post Editorial Board: “The West ... should not shrink from the destabilization of Mr. Putin’s regime. Once considered a partner, this Kremlin ruler has evolved into a dangerous rogue who threatens the stability and peace of Europe. If he can be undermined through sanctions and the restoration of order in eastern Ukraine, he should be.” (WP, 07.30.14)

Peter Harris, Associate Professor, Colorado State University: “[D]estroying or dismembering Russia… has never been the desire of American or European leaders. Instead, the nominal goal of Western policy is to change Russia, to encourage leaders in Moscow to adopt a new foreign policy tack. By imposing intolerable costs upon Russia as the price of its interventionism (in Ukraine or elsewhere), the U.S. and Europe hope to bring Moscow to terms and lay the foundations for a relationship whereby Russia will be expected to play by Western-designed rules. … Putin’s recent speech suggests that such an endgame might be wishful thinking.” (NI, 12.08.14)

Alexander J. Motyl, Professor, Rutgers University-Newark: “The only effective long-term solution to Putin's expansionism, however, is regime change. Putin and his fascistoid regime will always be prone to repress Russians and oppress non-Russians. The Putin regime's removal is thus the precondition of a freer and more neighborly Russia.” (Newsweek, 01.30.15)

Bret Stephens, Columnist, NYT:

  • “You don’t need to mention 1936 to know dictatorships place great stock in hosting major international sporting events. They confer legitimacy; they project virility. Denying both to Vladimir Putin should be a part of any plan to unseat him… If Mr. Putin is to be taken down, it will only happen when the rest of the country swings against him, not necessarily because he’s made them poorer, but because he’s humiliated them. When it comes to humiliation, nothing is so bad as an own-goal, both in soccer and in war. Time to force the play.” (WSJ, 06.08.15)
  • “[W]hat I have in mind is that we have to engage in a long-term strategy of containment of the Putin regime at every point that we can so that the ultimate conclusion of this struggle is that we are awakened to the fact that he is a major, clear and present danger to world security and that we should unite with our allies to make it very difficult for him to try to do something like this ever again, and to undermine the pillars of his regime’s support. So in that sense, sure, I want Putin to go, and I hope everyone else does, too.” (NYT, 03.17.22)
  • “The West … has a profound interest in seeing Russia lose decisively... It could also seriously undermine Putin’s political grip. To argue that the West has no compelling interest in wanting to see him fall is to pretend that, this time, he’ll slink back into his corner and leave the world alone… This opens the broader question of what else the West can do to accelerate Putin’s exit… [T]here is a range of options the West hasn’t yet touched when it comes to Putin. We could turn Russia’s frozen foreign reserves and other assets into an escrow account for Ukrainian reconstruction, rearmament and refugee resettlement. We could counter the Kremlin’s dezinformatsiya campaigns in the West with informational campaigns for Russian citizens, particularly when it comes to highlighting their leaders’ ill-gotten wealth. We could set an ambitious date for placing sanctions on all Russian energy imports. Brussels could invite Kyiv into a formal accession process into the European Union as a sign of moral solidarity. None of these may be a silver bullet when it comes to toppling Putin’s regime. But regimes that face military defeat, economic impoverishment and global pariahdom—as the Soviet Union did by the mid-1980s and Argentina did after its failure in the Falklands—are the ones likeliest to fall.” (NYT, 04.05.22) 

Leonid Gozman, Russian Politician: “[I]t’s clear that Putin is leading Russia to certain ruin, that he can’t or won’t change his political views and that major world powers do not see him as a reliable partner. His departure is a necessary—though not sufficient—condition to prevent national or even global catastrophe.” (Atlantic Council, 08.27.15)

Holman Jenkins, Jr., Columnist and Editorial Board Member, WSJ: “The U.S. cannot fix Mr. Putin’s problem for him, but it can help him avoid disastrous miscalculation. It could yet have a role in helping him unburden himself of power, escaping into retirement in Monaco or some such gilded refuge. At least it should be open to trying.” (WSJ, 12.15.16)

John Kasich, Governor of Ohio: “We must make it clear to the Kremlin leadership that it can expect a series of decisive joint allied responses if its aggression continues. This means implementing an escalating series of measures that will isolate Russia until its behavior or leadership changes: Curb Russian organizations bent on destabilizing the West; escalate the limitations on Russian private and public entities’ access to Western capital markets; close off Russian access to the international financial system; and end Western complicity in the export, laundering and legalization of assets stripped by corrupt Russian elites.” (Boston Globe, 06.05.18)

Janusz Bugajski, Senior Fellow, Jamestown Foundation:

  • “Russia faces a presidential election March 18. The result is already decided—Mr. Putin will win—but the country is vulnerable to cyber penetration. A key component of a covert assault would be to hack and disseminate official Russian communications, with a focus on the Kremlin, government ministries, parliament, key businesses and subservient political parties, as well as private correspondence between officials… A U.S. offensive could be extended beyond the election as part of a broader psychological influence operation. Such a strategy would have two core objectives: alienating the public from the regime and provoking power struggles inside the ruling stratum. Detailed revelations about official treason and financial abuse can fuel social, ethnic, regional and religious unrest—especially as living standards for the masses continue to plunge. Regime change would then become the responsibility of the exploited and manipulated Russian citizens.” (WSJ, 02.13.18)
  • “Engagement, criticism and limited sanctions have simply reinforced Kremlin perceptions that the West is weak and predictable. To curtail Moscow’s neo-imperialism a new strategy is needed, one that nourishes Russia’s decline and manages the international consequences of its dissolution… Given Russia’s ailments, an assertive Western approach would be more effective than reactive defense. Washington needs to return to core principles that accompanied the collapse of the Soviet Union by supporting democratization, pluralism, minority rights, genuine federalism, decentralization and regional self-determination among Russia’s disparate regions and ethnic groups.” (The Hill, 01.09.19)
  • “Western politicians have long argued that they do not want to hurt Russian citizens but only to punish the elite. The problem is that in Russia’s system of power, the elite always passes the pain on to ordinary citizens and largely escapes the impact of relatively tepid sanctions. By imposing more comprehensive financial sanctions, the Russian public will finally have a chance to influence the regime when the economy deteriorates to such a point that the only solution will be to oust it. If Ukrainians can overthrow a corrupt and autocratic regime, then why not the Russians?” (The Hill, 04.19.21)

Michael Mandelbaum, Professor Emeritus, Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies: “Cold War containment was an open-ended policy with a hoped-for eventual outcome. The same will be true for the new version: The policy should continue as long as the threats it is intended to counter continue, and ideally it will end similarly. Constructive regime change, for example, especially the advent of democracy, would alter the foreign policy orientations of the revisionist powers. Such a change would have to come about through internal processes and is unlikely to happen anytime soon. Still, none of the regimes can be confident of its longevity; repeated outbreaks of political turbulence over the years have shown that each faces significant domestic opposition, maintains itself in power through coercion and fears its people rather than trusts them. Situations like that can shift rapidly. A well-executed policy of containment could increase the chances of disruption by creating an external context that would encourage it. But when or, indeed, if it would bear fruit is impossible to predict.” (Foreign Affairs, March/April 2019)

Herman Pirchner, Jr., President, American Foreign Policy Council:

  • “Should Russia’s elite split, it may become possible to bring enough people into the streets to truly challenge Putin’s rule. Such a split could occur because those who cumulatively keep Putin in power feel their privileges threatened as a result of his mishandling of multiple issues (the virus, the economy and so forth), which has begun to undermine regime stability.” (NI, 05.26.20)
  • “A critical mass of Russia’s elites who want Putin removed is beginning to coalesce. When and how such an exit will be orchestrated remains to be seen. For the moment, it is still both dangerous and difficult. But as the Ukraine war drags on, the case for a new Russian leader will become increasingly compelling. That’s why, perhaps for the first time since he took power in the last days of 1999, it’s no longer premature to think about a Russia without Putin.” (The Hill, 05.13.22)

Vladimir Kara-Murza, Chair, Boris Nemtsov Foundation (quoted and paraphrased): “Putin has been granted the right to hold the presidency beyond his final mandate in 2024. ‘These amendments are null and void,’ says Kara-Muzra. If Putin tries to cling onto power beyond the end of his current term, as most expect him to, he should become as illegitimate as dictators like Belarus’ Alexander Lukashenko and Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, he adds, both of whom are illegal leaders in Washington’s eyes. ‘There must be a very clear public policy of non-recognition on the part of the free world, of course led by the U.S.,’ says Kara-Murza.” (Time, 11.17.20)

U.S. Reps. Steve Cohen and Joe Wilson introduced a House Resolution on Nov. 18, 2021,  that expressed “the sense of the House of Representatives that any attempt by the President of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin to remain in office beyond May 7, 2024, shall warrant nonrecognition on the part of the United States.” Russian presidential press secretary Dmitry Peskov denounced it the next day as “unacceptable” and said that “only Russians can determine who and when should be the president of the Russian Federation.” The resolution has been stuck in committee since its introduction. (RM, 11.19.21)

U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham:

  • “It is clear to me the world would be a better place if there was regime change in Russia. Putin is a war criminal who needs to go—at the hands of the Russian people—by any means possible.” (Twitter, 03.05.22)
  • “I’m willing to take that bet,” Graham said when asked if his calculations include the possibility that Putin could be replaced with someone worse. (Post and Courier, 03.14.22)

Michael Krepon, Co-Founder, Stimson Center: “How will Russia’s brutal war in Ukraine end? Or will it be endless, like other conflicts that smolder for decades? The answer to these questions, along with many others, depends on how long Vladimir Putin remains in power. The sooner he leaves, the sooner this war will end, and the reconstitution of a stable Europe can begin.” (Forbes, 03.14.22)

Michelle Goldberg, Columnist, NYT: “I’m interested in seeing not just Putin but Putinism be weakened and destroyed. And if that happens, this conflict [the current war in Ukraine], I think it would be a net good. … [O]bviously the world would be better off without Vladimir Putin.” (NYT, 03.17.22)

U.S. Senator Tim Kaine called on the International Criminal Court (ICC) to open an investigation into the actions of Russian President Vladimir Putin. (Senate.gov, 03.29.22)

Garry Kasparov, Chairman, Renew Democracy Initiative: “No free-world leader should hesitate to state plainly that the world would be a far better place if Mr. Putin were no longer in charge in Russia, and one way to help make that come about is to say it. Making it clear that Russia will be a pariah until Mr. Putin is gone is the best way to shake his support among elites, military commanders and ordinary Russians.” (WSJ, 04.03.22)

Larry Kudlow, Talk Show Host, Fox Business News: “[I]f Ukraine can win and Russia loses, then Putin is kaput. Gone. Regime change will be upon him and Garry Kasparov agreed with Biden's original statement that Putin must go, as did I.  … What Kasparov is saying, that the U.S. must expand its financial and energy sanctions to damage Putin and deliver as many lethal weapons as president Zelensky needs, this is the road to regime change in Russia. … Putin is a war criminal, a mad man and a crook.” (FBN, 04.05.22)

Tim Weiner, Author: “The United States may not be in the business of regime change right now. It can still help turn the political tide against Vladimir Putin in Russia… Perhaps someday the Russian people, armed with the truth, will rise up against their czar.” (WP, 04.07.22)

Andrea Kendall-Taylor, Senior Fellow, Center for a New American Security (CNAS), and Erica Frantz, Associate Professor, Michigan State University: “We have studied autocratic regimes for many years, and the empirical record increasingly supports the conclusion that a Russia with Putin is likely to be worse than one without him. … The historical track record of longtime autocrats suggests that if Putin exited office as a result of domestic dynamics—that is, from coups, protests or natural death in office—Russia’s political trajectory would be unlikely to get worse in terms of repression and aggression than it is now and might even improve.” (Politico, 05.05.22)

Gregory Meeks, Chairman, U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee (quoted and paraphrased): “Meeks … says he hopes ‘a different type of Russia’ will emerge following the war in … Ukraine, ‘not a Russia that is led by a brutal regime.’ … Meeks said he was not advocating ‘regime change,’ and that change would have to be driven by ‘the people of Russia.’” (RFE/RL, 05.25.22)

The opinions expressed herein are solely those of the authors and/or individuals cited. Photo by Kremlin.ru shared under a Creative Commons license.