Putin, sic semper tyrannis

The Western goal should be to remove Russia’s leader

Andrew Thompson

Many people, particularly value-minded, principled people, loath opportunists. To them, opportunists are malleable, unstable, and hypocritical. Yet, sometimes the pragmatic, self-interested lens opportunism provides proves critical in overcoming challenges.  

The West needs to take an opportunistic approach towards the Russo-Ukrainian war. That is not to say the suffering of the Ukrainian people should be treated as something good. The poignant videos of dead bodies, bloodied hospital patients, and crying children shown to Congress during Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s address is enough to dispel any such notion.  

Rather, the sacrifices made by the noble Ukrainian people to defend and sustain shared democratic values must be honored. So that their exertions are not wasted, so that liberal democracy is defended not just in Ukraine but around the world, the cold calculations of the opportunist need to be made.  

As ruthlessly editorialized by The Economist, Russian President Vladimir Putin committed a gross error by invading Ukraine. He made a mistake which the West must exploit to the fullest extent.    

The opportunity accorded is as follows: Mr. Putin’s actions provide an opening for free countries to act offensively in the new cold war. As Churchillian as another ideological struggle might sound, the reality is that liberal democracies are now pitted against an autocratic order aligned along the axis of Russia and China. The situation in Ukraine gives freedom loving nations the chance to land a devastating blow to illiberalism and dictate the terms of the conflict moving forward.    

Several years ago, I heard the founder of the geopolitical consulting firm Eurasia Group, Ian Bremmer, describe the balance of power in the world. There are three main actors, he explained: the U.S., China, and Russia. The U.S. is the sole superpower. China is seeking hegemonic influence in East-Asia and to displace the U.S. from the region. Russia, as Bremmer characterized, is much like a wounded animal, a shadow of its former self, antagonistic, and willing to strike unpredictably. He said bluntly that Russia seeks to make trouble.  

For his part, President Putin claimed in a recent speech that the Americans and NATO aim to “destroy Russia.” He is adamant that America in particular wants to subjugate the Russian people and trample their way of life. Such is not their aim, and Western countries must carefully make clear that their qualm is not with Russia’s people.  

But their goal should—must—be to destroy Mr. Putin and his regime. The often discussed “off ramp” cannot be offered.  

Eliminating Russia as a bad actor would be a major victory for the West that would also set back China’s sinister world vision. Conveniently, Mr. Putin has provided liberal democracies the pretext needed to use offensive measures, tools that can be employed to ultimately destroy his regime. The free world can impose further crushing sanctions and can greatly sap Russia’s strength and resolve by ensuring that Zelensky’s government can continue to fight.  

The danger here is that President Putin will feel backed into a corner and lash out even more violently, perhaps using nuclear weapons. However, values are worthless unless they are defended. If the twenty-first century is to be defined by democracy rather than authoritarianism—as some trends hint—now is the time to act.  

 Moreover, one of the chief criticisms Russia and China lodge—and this too is evident from Putin’s rhetoric—against the West and the liberal world order is that they are decadent, weak, and lazy. Having the guts to stand up for freedom disproves their point. Standing up, giving a tyrant his due is not just a political victory but a moral one.  

My argument is thus that the U.S. and the West at large need to be aggressive from here on out, whether in dealing with Putin or Chinese president Xi Jinping. No, not reckless—Senator Lindsey Graham openly calling for the assassination of Mr. Putin was foolish. The Western governments cannot overtly state that they want to topple Putin from power, but that is the goal towards which they must act.    

President Biden himself has been too cautious in his approach, even though the actions he has taken so far have been unprecedented in scope. Indeed, admonishing the administration for not going far enough is an easy complaint to make. But a bipartisan group of voices, a coalition across the press, is calling for more to be done.  

Among other things, better air defenses such as the Russian made S-300 missile systems stationed in Eastern European countries can be given to the Ukrainians. Some measures cannot be taken publicly. The Polish MiG-29 fighter jets, for instance, will likely need to be transferred to Ukraine covertly. 

No matter how, more can be done, and more must be done. The chance to remove a delusional dictator from power is too good to pass up.