Skip to main content
opinion

Russian President Vladimir Putin gestures during a joint news conference with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in Moscow, Russia, on Feb. 15.Sputnik Photo Agency/Reuters

A 1975 U.S. Senate committee report on intelligence plots to assassinate foreign leaders makes for fascinating, if chilling, reading. It makes it clear that regime change abroad was once a common theme of U.S. foreign policy – whether the sitting president knew about it or not.

The report investigated the involvement of the U.S. intelligence officials, in the 1960s and early 1970s, in efforts to overthrow and/or assassinate Communist leaders in Cuba, Democratic Republic of Congo, South Vietnam, Chile and the Dominican Republic.

“The Committee finds that the system of executive command and control was so ambiguous that it is difficult to be certain at what levels assassination activity was known and authorized,” the report says. “It is also possible that there might have been a successful ‘plausible denial’ in which presidential authorization was issued but is now obscured. Whether or not the respective presidents knew of or authorized the plots, as chief executive officer of the United States, each must bear the ultimate responsibility for the activities of his subordinates.”

In the wake of the damning report, then-president Gerald Ford signed an executive order stating that “no employee of the United States government shall engage in, or conspire to engage in, political assassination.” But successive administrations have interpreted the order to suit their own national security objectives. Targeted killings of foreign officials, such as that of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani in 2020, appear permissible under certain circumstances.

The question has resurfaced, in an unfortunate way, amid Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war on Ukraine after South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham called “for somebody in Russia to take this guy out.” White House spokesperson Jen Psaki wasted no time dismissing Mr. Graham’s outburst: “We are not advocating for killing the leader of a foreign country or regime change. That is not the policy of the United States.”

Should we call Putin’s bluff? We already have

Canada and the Russians: Fifty years of hope go up in smoke

Still, while it would be unthinkable – if not immoral and possibly illegal – for the U.S. government to actively engage in an effort to eliminate Mr. Putin, regime change in Russia does seem to be an unstated goal of Western foreign policy. A spokesperson for British Prime Minister Boris Johnson inadvertently let the cat out of the bag last week, saying that sanctions on Russia were “intended to bring down the Putin regime.” Mr. Johnson’s office subsequently walked back the comment.

To be clear, the main goal of imposing crippling sanctions on Russia and arming the Ukrainians remains ending the war Mr. Putin has unleashed with wanton disregard for the lives of innocent civilians. But it is becoming increasingly apparent that there may be no way to stop the war that does not also involve toppling Mr. Putin.

The economic sanctions slapped on Russia, including on its oligarchs and its central bank, are clearly aimed at weakening domestic support for Mr. Putin. Arming Ukrainians to fight what promises to be a protracted insurgency, meanwhile, similarly aims to give pause to Mr. Putin’s Kremlin enablers about the dark tunnel into which their boss has led them. The body language of members of Mr. Putin’s National Security Council during a televised Feb. 21 meeting spoke volumes about their own malaise. And that was before Mr. Putin green-lit the invasion.

Within Russia, Mr. Putin still has a Soviet-like propaganda machine and repressive police apparatus under his command. He has had success spinning his previous military inventions abroad as great nationalist victories. But his earlier incursions in Chechnya, Georgia, Syria and Crimea did not entail the crippling costs that his war on Ukraine will impose on all Russians, regardless of status.

Mr. Putin may be able to fool some – or even most – Russians about why their rubles have become worthless, and their freedoms curtailed even more, but it is only a matter of time before enough of them figure out that their President, not a vengeful West, is the real cause of their country’s decline and pariah status. Younger Russians, especially, have no experience living in an autarky. They will not like it.

“The economic crisis that Russia is experiencing is also exacerbating the domestic political opposition to Putin’s decision to invade,” the U.S. director of national intelligence Avril Haines told a House of Representatives committee on Tuesday, adding that the Russian President “did not anticipate” the Western response.

“Putin feels aggrieved that the West does not give him proper deference and perceives this war as a war he cannot afford to lose,” she added. “But what he might accept as a victory may change over time given the significant costs he is incurring.”

Short of a backdown by Mr. Putin – unlikely in most scenarios – regime change may now be the only way to prevent this war from spreading. How that happens remains unclear. But you can be certain that Joe Biden is thinking about it.

Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.