What is really the biggest problem: that US President Joe Biden said in his speech in Warsaw that Vladimir Putin should not stay in power?
Or that his government later tries to recover it halfway? Regime change in Moscow is not one of the stated goals of US policy, the White House explains.
It seems perfectly fine that a leader whom Biden has branded a “murderer,” “butcher,” and “war criminal” remains in power. But wouldn’t that be the biggest scandal?
Back in Washington, Biden has now rejected relativization. He stands by his words: “Vladimir Putin cannot remain in power”, which is a moral judgment and not the announcement of a new policy of regime change in Moscow.
Chancellor Olaf Scholz should also answer this question unequivocally. But he does not. In Anne Will he rejects regime change, but does not explain to the Germans whether he thinks it is better for Putin to stay or for him to overthrow the criminal war.
A serial killer should not stay in power
International law scholars have said that the Russian military’s actions, particularly in the city of Mariupol, have the hallmarks of genocide. And yet, the leaders of Western democracies like Emmanuel Macron and Olaf Scholz now give the impression that it is wrong to want Putin to be held accountable.
Once again, political leaders, their spin-doctors and spokespersons are failing to explain what they say and do to the public. This explanation also includes the fact that statements that sound like contradictions are not so contradictions.
From a moral and international law point of view, it must be concluded that a serial killer like Putin should not remain in power. The fall of him is absolutely desirable. You can, and should, say it calmly. This also applies to Biden, Macron and Scholz.
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However, from the realpolitik side, they must ask themselves if and how and when they can achieve this goal. And how much would that cost? As with other government actions, the desirable becomes a declared goal of day-to-day current policy. Or not.
Milosevic ended up in criminal court, Assad did not
In truth, wanting Putin to be overthrown and tried as a war criminal is not a now-or-never thing. That will become clear over time.
Serbian war criminals like Slobodan Milosevic, Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic ended up before the war crimes court. Syrian dictator Bashir al-Assad is not, despite mass murder and the use of chemical weapons against civilians.
He is still in power today. But that does not mean that humanity has to give up the right to prosecution.
At the moment, Western Ukraine politics has more urgent tasks than regime change in Moscow. These include a ceasefire in Ukraine, the protection of civilians in besieged cities, and the delivery of weapons so that those attacked can continue to successfully defend themselves against Russian aggression.
Reasons for Western hesitation: Putin remains a negotiating partner
But would the chances of a negotiated solution increase if the West told Putin that it would do everything to overthrow him? Of course not.
At the same time, Putin is certainly under no illusions that he is an accepted partner of choice. He fears that the West will settle for potential successors behind his back. He already shows that he is cutting off established channels of communication, for example, between American and Russian generals.
At present, Ukraine and the West must assume that Putin is the ruler with whom a negotiated peace must be concluded. As long as this is true, one does not declare his downfall as an explicit goal.
But the situation can change. The more embarrassing the war is for Putin, the more unstable his throne is. Therefore, there is no reason to rule out regime change forever.
It is also clear that going back to the way things were before the war is not conceivable in the foreseeable future. Images of a G20 summit where Scholz, Macron and Biden greeted Putin with a handshake and a smile? Inconceivable. He is highly contaminated and, if he remains in power, he remains in international quarantine.
What comes after Putin? And who insures nuclear weapons?
More explosive is the question of what will come after Putin if he falls. The world expects a controlled transition of power, without prolonged chaos and instability.
Russia’s nuclear weapons must remain in safe custody. The West also cannot want a person who surpasses it in cruelty and criminal propensity to replace Putin.
Why is Joe Biden able to reveal this dichotomy while Olaf Scholz and Emmanuel Macron are not? Western values dictate that someone like Putin should lose power and be held accountable for his crimes. But that doesn’t mean his downfall should be declared an immediate target of active government action in the coming weeks.
By the way, in Poland and other countries of the Eastern alliance, the Western enthusiasm for the Biden sentence cannot be understood. In Ukraine even less.
Zelenskyj’s contradictory goals are much more dramatic.
Even in times of peace, politicians struggle with conflicting goals and contradictions between pure teaching and reality. In war this applies threefold.
A Volodymyr Zelenskyy has to expect his citizens to make much more dramatic considerations than the question of whether the desirable overthrow of Putin can be declared a goal today.