The Russian military should overthrow Putin — for Russia’s sake and its own

Associated Press

At the outset of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin called upon the Ukrainian military to oust President Volodymyr Zelensky and agree to a peace deal with Russia.  But that did not happen. Instead, the Ukrainian military and public have rallied around Zelensky and put up surprisingly strong resistance against the invading Russian forces.

It is doubtful that Putin expected this. But even if he really thought that he could conquer Ukraine quickly and easily, he is not going to stop trying now and pull back his forces. Instead, he appears to be doubling down on his war, indifferent to the damage he is inflicting on Ukrainian lives and property, as well as on Russia’s reputation.

{mosads}Short of a quick victory that has become increasingly elusive for Russia, the best way now to stop Russia quickly would be for Putin, not Zelensky, to be the one removed from power and replaced by a new leader willing to reverse course. Putin, though, long has feared being overthrown by a popular democratic uprising and so has built up a formidable security apparatus that has made this virtually impossible — as long as the Russian military and other security services remain loyal to him. The only way, then, to remove him from office quickly would be for his own military to overthrow him.

Ordinarily, America and the West deplore military takeovers. But in this case, they are likely to welcome it, especially if the new leader called a halt to the Russian invasion, began to pull troops out, turned Putin over to the International Criminal Court for trial as a war criminal, and made good-faith efforts to make peace with Ukraine through internationally sponsored peace negotiations.

The Russian military, of course, won’t overthrow Putin just because America and others in the West might want it to. But they could — and should — do this because they see that Putin’s intervention has not succeeded in ousting the Ukrainian government; risks facing a prolonged insurgency even if it does; has united the West against Russia; and is only making Russia more dependent on China. None of this is in Russia’s interests. Indeed, a prolonged fight in Ukraine risks undermining morale and discipline within the Russian armed forces, as well as the control of the military leadership over them.

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It would be in the Russian military’s interests, then, to seize power from Putin before any such possibility arises. Russia has a long tradition of new leaders reversing policies pursued by their immediate predecessors (as Vladimir Lenin, Joseph Stalin, Nikita Khrushchev, Leonid Brezhnev, Mikhail Gorbachev, Boris Yeltsin, and Putin himself all did). Even if it does not call for democratization, the Russian military could announce a “Russia First” policy of “normalization,” in which Moscow focuses on internal economic development and building the good relations with the outside world needed to attract the trade and investment that would foster it. 

Even those who still have hopes for Russia’s democratic transformation should welcome this, as Russia’s experience in the 1990s showed that democratization could not succeed when there had not yet been a successful economic transformation.

{mossecondads}Again, the Russian military will not overthrow Putin at the behest of America and the West.  Indeed, fear that removing Putin somehow might allow the West to take advantage of Russia could inhibit such a move. To alleviate this fear, Western leaders should make clear that they have no intention of taking advantage of a leadership change and are willing to respect Russia’s sovereignty and its legitimate security interests once Moscow ends Putin’s war in Ukraine.

Yet, even if there are those within the Russian military leadership who recognize the need for Putin to go — as a group of retired Russian military officers called for just prior to the invasion of Ukraine — doing so would be an extremely risky enterprise. What they need to consider, though, is whether the risks incurred by Putin’s remaining in power and continuing his reckless policies are even greater for Russia and the Russian military itself.

Mark N. Katz is a professor of government and politics at the George Mason University Schar School of Policy and Government, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.

Tags Foreign policy of Vladimir Putin Russian invasion of Ukraine Russian military Ukrainian crisis Vladimir Putin

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