The White House might have issued the fastest correction of a sitting US president’s remarks in history this weekend. But it doesn’t matter one bit.
The bottom line is Joe Biden — and most of the civilized world — wants to see Vladimir Putin out of power in Russia. More to the point: they want to see his regime changed and him most likely Gaddafi’d for his sins. And, to be frank, who can blame them?
There is just one problem: getting rid of Vlad means World War Three. And I can tell you from gaming out such a conflict countless times in simulators, such a conflict leaves tens of millions of people dead.
But let’s step back for a moment. I’m going to cut the president a little bit slack for saying out loud what we are all thinking. Biden surely was speaking from the heart, and he hasn’t been shy about calling President Putin every name in the book over the last few weeks either.
Considering Biden’s remarks, we do need to consider what has been a clear sea change in Russia policy due to Putin’s shocking invasion of Ukraine, which while warranted, could truly threaten Putin’s reign.
If you compile the tens of billions of dollars in military aid to Ukraine and the now trillions of dollars in mounting economic sanctions, the Russian state now faces the most serious crisis to its survival since Hitler invaded the old Soviet Union in 1941.
Six months from now, Russia’s economy could be on the verge of death, due not only to sanctions but also to the fact that most major companies want nothing to do with anything Russian-related: the reputational damage is too much to take on.
So in fact, yes, even if it was not intended, the combined actions of the planet to transform Russia into the new Nazi Germany means in the months to come, regime change will morph into the de facto goal. And Biden let the cat out of the bag.
But we all know such words — and those actions — will have consequences.
Shouldn’t we have the foresight to consider what a destabilized nuclear-armed Russia will do when it can’t feed its own people, defaults on its debts and millions of people take to the streets in spring and summer protests?
History screams out for caution. Even though the world has good intentions in helping Ukraine and punishing Russia, Putin does not seem the type to hop on a plane and head into dictator retirement on a tropical island somewhere. No, he will seek revenge.
There is of course the hope the war ends quickly — and there does seem to be some reason to believe both sides are coming closer to a diplomatic settlement. NATO membership seems off the table, Kyiv seems willing to make some territorial concessions and Putin seems to have revised downward his war goals. That seems like progress to me.
However, does anyone really think that the West or corporations around the world will be eager to do business with the Butcher of Mariupol anytime soon? Do we really think anyone will be eager to remove sanctions on Moscow after what it did to Ukraine? Russia will most like never get out of the economic penalty box for as long as Putin remains in power. History shows that, in most cases, when sanctions get slapped on they are not coming off.
That’s what makes this situation truly dangerous. NATO, the West, and most of their economic institutions and corporations see what Putin did as a fatal mistake. Putin has already told us time and time again he would use nuclear weapons if the Russian state — aka his hold on power — is threatened in any existential way.
Be warned: we might have already crossed that line and not even realized it.