We should think about Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine the way Boulay thought about the execution of the Duke of Enghien: “It was worse than a crime — it was a blunder.”
(The witticism often is wrongly attributed to Talleyrand, and occasionally to Henry Kissinger.)
Of course we should give due moral weight to the death and horror associated with this campaign of mass murder. But I would hope that somewhere in Washington there is someone coldhearted and clearheaded enough to recognize this for what it is: an opportunity.
Putin has just put on a dramatic demonstration of the Russian military’s incompetence and his own defective judgment. He is losing thousands of troops and senior officers, along with a great deal of matériel. The Russian economy is a shambles — one that is going to get much, much worse in the immediate future. The free world has responded with energy and urgency. Xi Jinping is trying to walk sideaways away from this mess. India, which has long maintained a warm relationship with Russia, is treating the war as a bargain-hunting opportunity.
Putin, meanwhile, has graduated to the stage of his dictator’s career when he starts denouncing his allies at home as traitors. There are men in Moscow with a great deal of property and power — presumably, they would prefer to keep these rather than losing them in a purge. Vladimir Putin is not the only man in Russia who likes money and power and doesn’t mind using violence to get them or to hold on to them.
Russia is not as big a problem for the United States as China is going to be, but it is a problem — and a problem close at hand for the European allies we are going to need in our contest with Beijing.
How often does an enemy give you a gift — a blunder — like this?
A year ago, working toward regime change in Russia would have been an exercise in wishful thinking. Today, thanks to Putin’s blunder, it is a live possibility. It will not bring the dead back to life or make the mangled whole, but we have a real chance to drive Putin from power without U.S. forces firing a shot. We have a rare moment of international consensus that Washington never has enjoyed in American efforts to deal with — to take the most relevant example — Iran.
I worry that the Biden administration — not just the president himself but the administration as a whole — is too lazy and too risk-averse to make the most of the opportunity that Putin has laid before them. But Putin’s blunder is worth exploiting: Getting rid of him leaves our allies better off and disadvantages our enemies, redounds to our long-term benefit both economically and in terms of security, and sets a salubrious example for other would-be great powers bent on adventures abroad. And, in the greater scheme of things, it isn’t very expensive.
I am skeptical of too much ambition in government, too much cleverness, too much half-smart Machiavellianism. But we didn’t have to hatch some grand geopolitical scheme to trick Vladimir Putin into his current position — he climbed out on the ledge all by himself.
All we have to do is push.
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