Following the invasion of Ukraine, Western countries imposed unprecedented sanctions on the Kremlin. The sanctions were set in place in response to Russia's war. Regime change was specifically not part of this objective. In fact, the United States has a long history of working cooperatively with autocratic regimes, including Saudi Arabia, Egypt and previously Russia.
However, because of how the situation has unfolded, these two objectives (ending the war and changing the regime) have essentially merged as the conflict has become an existential challenge for the West. Not since Hitler has a single individual been able to personally control a state so completely. Putin is now personally responsible for tens of thousands of deaths, trillions of dollars of damages, and widespread disruption of the international community. The UN International Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine has concluded that an array of war crimes, violations of human rights and international humanitarian law have been committed in Ukraine. President Biden's initial comment on Putin's actions, "for God's sake, this man cannot remain in power," was promptly walked back to a focus on weakening Russia. But Biden's comment was absolutely correct. Putin's removal has to be an objective, and not just a US objective. It is not a case of opposing a foreign leader because of objection to internal programs but because Putin's leadership threatens global stability, undermining peace and prosperity in Europe, including for the Russian people themselves. Yet, as Michael Rubin comments, the administration is reluctant to seek victory.
Those who do support seeking victory, typically see it as seeking Ukraine's absolute victory or giving Ukraine what it needs to exit the fight. There are two basic problems with these proposals. First, they are heavily focused militarily. More importantly, they do not address the underlying confrontation of Russia with the world. The United States needs to stand up to its traditional global leadership role and promote the emergence of a positive Russian government. This could fundamentally improve the entire global strategic situation
A cease fire could halt hostile military operations but not lift sanctions. Ukraine is totally opposed to relinquishing any territory, even temporarily. And Putin adamantly needs to show some kind of victory. A cease fire under these conditions would provide no basis for a peace agreement to end the war, addressing war crimes and reparations. Lacking that, there is no end of the war in sight, and no basis for lifting the sanctions. A cease fire would shift the confrontation from a military contest to a diplomatic and socio-economic one. The confrontation challenges Russia on a global scale; the ultimate objective is not protecting territory in Ukraine but promoting the emergence of a more progressive Russian government.
The center element of the sanctions is Plutin - the combination of Putin and his plutocracy that has taken control of Russia and led it into a blind alley, waging war not only against Ukraine but against the Russian people. The West is slowly recognizing this as a real existential threat. Lifting of sanctions would require Russia to renounce its claims of sovereignty over regions of Ukraine. This simply cannot happen with Putin in place. A new and more progressive Russian government is now the only way out of the war.
The West needs to make it absolutely clear that the sanctions are not directed against the Russian people, but against Putin's ability to continue the war. Minimizing Russian assets is critical because Putin is draining all the assets he can from the Russian people to support this war effort. Ending the war and ending sanctions could lead to a whole new era of peace and prosperity in Europe. The sudden burst of military effort brought on by the war in Ukraine could be replaced by a sudden collapse of the need for military expansion. Budgets could focus on development. Arms control would become a central area of cooperation. Globally, support for autocracy would be dramatically lessened.
Such a situation would obviously not be attractive to Putin; economic development is actually one of his greatest fears, a fear that the people would actually take charge as happened with several earlier color revolutions. This is what drives Putin's focus on internal repression and what makes public uprisings unlikely, reinforced by broad public support for traditional authoritative governments.
The Russian elite supports Putin out of self-preservation and the wider public largely accepts his baseless claim that Russia's survival and territorial integrity are threatened by the West. But sanctions have also made mid-level officials, bureaucrats and entrepreneurs deeply aware of the impact Putin is having on the country. They are not beneficiaries of the plutocratic system, but rather also victims of Putin and sensitive to the dramatic impact that the sanctions are actually having as the Russian economy is imploding. The West needs to stress that the alternative to sanctions is not a shattered Russia, but a peaceful and prosperous Europe that would include a dynamic new Russia.
The West needs to give that vision of a new Russia as high a visibility as possible, focusing on how it would dramatically change the situation.
- Russian energy supplies are now a challenge for Europe but in a new Europe, Russia would once again be an important player. Western energy managers need to outline what a positive relationship could look like in the future
- Western companies that have withdrawn from Russia need to re-energize discussions with potential partners in Russia, outlining what positive programs could be re-established once sanctions are gone.
- International organizations also need to re-energize discussions with Russian counterparts, stressing their interest in renewing positive programs. The Russian diaspora has to be encouraged to join in this effort.
- Thousands of highly educated Russians who have fled the country in recent months would be the first to return if a new system emerged, and they are badly needed. The Russian diaspora has deep roots in the region and could be a crucial element in building a better Russia, facilitating dynamic economic ties between their countries of residence and a new Russia.
- There is now a new-found effort to mount a coordinated effort against Putin's regime as a Russian Action Committee is laying out a detailed vision how to dismantle the current Russian government and install new representative one.
Overall, mid-level officials and everyday Russians need to see an attractive picture of a dynamic Russia as sanctions are lifted in response to the emergence of new governmental arrangements.
Outreach to the Russian people is essential. The United States and its allies need to stress the willingness to support economic development in Russia and build a mutually beneficial trade relationship. Some of the prior relationships, particularly with energy supply, were overly one-sided and need to be adjusted. The Russian people have to see the absolute sham of Putin's claim of a threat from the West. Detailed information on Putin's corruption, on the major losses of the Russian military - including a major Ukrainian attack on a Russian barracks - and on the devastation of the Russian economy need to be widely distributed within Russia.
The ultimate objective is to demonstrate to the Russians how economic integration with the West would support fundamental development. The central objective of the confrontation with Russia has to be doing what should have been done 30 years ago - integrate Russia economically into the Industrialized World. That is a daunting task, thwarted then by oligarchs determined to keep control of economic systems. That this is the alternative to sanctions has to be made crystal clear to the Russian public.
The Western world with US leadership needs to push for a new and more progressive Russian government that can work cooperatively to address and correct as far as possible the destruction of the war in Ukraine. This would significantly decrease autocracy globally and raise the potential for meaningful talks on nuclear arms reduction.
Sanctions have a mixed history of success. Conceived as an alternative to war, they have frequently led to more violence. They are a limited tool that can actually encourage nationalism, which is exactly what Putin is trying to do with them. But he cannot avoid the fact that sanctions are crippling his economy and provide a strong incentive for key officials and the public at large to insist on change. They are indeed an alternative to war and can be a centerpiece of Western efforts to promote change in the Russian government.