Since the invasion of Ukraine, calls to increase sanctions against Russia, with the goal of degrading its ability to acquire new offensive capabilities, have increased. Sanctions are targeting banks and Russia’s industrial base, with the aim to punitively squeeze Russian leadership and oligarchs, especially those tied to the Putin regime.
In recent days, however, these calls have taken a new tenor with US senators, former CIA directors, various government officials, and commentators directly stating that these sanctions should be used to try and encourage a palace coup against President Vladimir Putin. This has the dangerous effect of possibly escalating this conflict in ways the US and its allies are not prepared for. Furthermore, it’s based on a troublesome assumption that the US is good at regime change when empirical evidence indicates otherwise.
HOW TO AVOID ESCALATION
While these sanctions provide a clear cost for Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine, the Biden administration, and its alliance partners, have a further obligation to prevent this terrible war from escalating into a broader global conflict and focus on pathways to end the conflict. While President Joe Biden has recognized this imperative by not being willing to send US troops to Ukraine itself, one fundamental way to avoid further escalation is to focus on resolving the crisis by not seeking to target the Russian regime with its own downfall.
Putin’s actions present a tragedy for Ukraine, Russia, and the world. The Biden administration should not exacerbate this tragedy by creating the conditions that make Putin fear for his regime security.
Some policymakers and foreign officials seem to believe that the only way to stop Russia’s continued belligerence is by removing the regime in power. This is a dangerous proposal that is rife with peril. Even without a clear replacement in mind or understanding of what a prospective future government would look like, there is an assumption that any future Russian government would be better and more likely to stop the war, so the US and its allies should do everything they can to topple Putin.
Importantly, the idea of regime change against Putin ignores an immense and dangerous aspect: risk. All great powers place a premium on regime security, and Russia is no different — and if Putin’s regime security is threatened, the conflict will escalate almost immediately. Given the track record of deposed authoritarian leaders, in a situation where there is a choice between escalating to a nuclear attack or losing power, Putin will face an immense “use it or lose it” dilemma for Russia’s nuclear arsenal. Avoiding placing a nuclear-armed regime in the position to determine if they should escalate before losing power and gamble for resurrection must be avoided at all costs.
The Biden administration should also recognize that not threatening Russian regime security through missile deployments and support for anti-regime protests at this time is also essential. In response to the invasion, some have called for increased deployment of intermediate-range missiles and missile defense platforms on Russia’s borders that would be able to strike at Moscow. Given years of Russian paranoia that these missiles could be used in a regime change strike against Putin, deploying now would only further escalate and place the Russian regime into more precarity where they fear their survival. Any platforms that could be used to target the regime create a strategic liability that will only increase the chances of escalation and strikes against NATO member states.
EXERCISE CAUTION IN SUPPORTING RUSSIAN PROTESTORS
While calls for increased missile deployments continue to come, there are also reports of brave Russian activists and citizens taking to the streets to protest against the tragic actions carried out in their name. In response, there is a natural inclination to want to support these protestors against the ruling regime to make it more costly at home to continue the war. However, underestimating how Russia views internal and external threats to the regime as linked makes supporting such protests a dangerous game, where any kind of support could be seen as an escalation — and ultimately may bring the US into the conflict. The linking of US support for anti-war protestors could also lead these brave individuals to be seen as part of a US-led plot against the regime.
There is evidence that when opposition movements become seen as driven by US hands, rightly or wrongly, they are more likely to face harsh repression and for the perceived legitimacy of the protest to be diminished. For instance, after receiving funding from US democracy promotion programs, various organizations in Russia, China, Egypt, and other non-democracies, were shuttered after being labeled as agents of American influence, leading to mass arrests and reduced local legitimacy. As such, the best legitimation the US can do is to simply shine a light on these brave actors rather than trying to further incentivize protest or provide material support for any uprisings. Outraged citizens in the West absolutely should continue to share the message of these protestors. However, the Biden administration should instead take the tough step to continue to focus their policies and sanctions on the external aspects of Russia to contain and roll back, rather than trying to change who rules in Russia. If Putin thinks he has nothing to lose, the incentives to escalate to a broader war become overly dangerous.
AVOIDING ESCALATION IS NECESSARY
Putin’s actions present a tragedy for Ukraine, Russia, and the world. The Biden administration should not exacerbate this tragedy by creating the conditions that make Putin fear for his regime security. Already there have been statements offered by both Russia and NATO about the implicit nuclear threat hanging over any escalation.
Pushing the Putin regime to further see NATO as preparing to target his regime’s security through more significant missile deployment and overt support to domestic opposition and protestors only leads to greater chances of escalation into a broader European war, and harms the legitimacy of the protest movements to help stop the war at home. Tying sanctions relief to ending the war and removing troops from Ukraine is more likely to end the war than advocating for regime change in Moscow.
Benjamin Denison is a Non-Resident Fellow at Defense Priorities.