It’s an intentionally provocative question, but one that should be asked in a world when there are no good or guaranteed options to prevent bad actors like Vladimir Putin from invading neighboring countries, committing war crimes, causing untold bloodshed, and disrupting the entire globe. If we could go back in time, what would you do to prevent the war in Ukraine?
On February 18, 1976 President Gerald R. Ford signed Executive Order 11905 banning assassinations among other reforms of the intelligence community. The text of the order read, “No employee of the United States Government shall engage in, or conspire to engage in, political assassination.” This was a first of its kind ban in the United States after almost 200 years of country-hood. The original order was subsequently strengthened by President Jimmy Carter, closing what was perceived as a loophole and generalizing the language to include “no person acting on behalf of the United States” in addition to direct employees. This same provision was also restated by President and conservative hero, Ronald Reagan, in Executive Order 12333, signed on December 4, 1981. In the more than 40 years since, this ban has rarely been questioned, even when dealing with so-called world leaders that have no compunction about ordering assassinations themselves and generally violating every other international law governing military and diplomatic manners. The general consensus appears to be that we must be better than they are and operate according to some higher moral and ethical code.
Today, this impulse has become so strong that even talk of an assassination occuring without the US’s involvement is greeted with intense criticism. Last week, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham tweeted, “Is there a Brutus in Russia? Is there a more successful Colonel Stauffenberg in the Russian military? The only way this ends is for somebody in Russia to take this guy out. You would be doing your country — and the world — a great service.” He followed up with another tweet, “The only people who can fix this are the Russian people. Easy to say, hard to do. Unless you want to live in darkness for the rest of your life, be isolated from the rest of the world in abject poverty, and live in darkness you need to step up to the plate.”
Senator Graham was greeted by swift condemnation from almost everyone including members of his own party. Kremlin Press Secretary Dmitry Peskov told reporters, “Unfortunately, in such an extremely tense atmosphere, there is a hysterical escalation of Russophobia. These days, not everyone manages to maintain sobriety, I would even say sanity, and many lose their mind.” Russian Ambassador to the United States, Anatoly Antonov, claimed the statement was “unacceptable and outrageous” on Facebook. “It is impossible to believe that a senator of a country that promotes its moral values as a ‘guiding star’ for all mankind could afford to call for terrorism as a way to achieve Washington’s goals in the international arena.” Senator Graham’s own party was a little more restrained, but not much. “This is an exceptionally bad idea,” tweeted Texas Senator Ted Cruz. “Use massive economic sanctions; BOYCOTT Russian oil & gas; and provide military aid so the Ukrainians can defend themselves. But we should not be calling for the assassination of heads of state.” Georgia Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene claimed on Twitter that the world needs “calm minds & steady wisdom. Not blood thirsty warmongering politicians trying to tweet tough by demanding assassinations.” Florida Representative Matt Gaetz wondered, “When has Sen. Graham encouraging regime change ever ended badly?”
I can understand these concerns and the fear of creating a significant moral hazard. Assassinations are a bloody business and should be avoided at almost all cost. At the same time, the policies Senator Cruz and others are recommending all come with their own set of concerns and moral hazards as well as associated costs. Right now Russia is bombing civilian targets in an all out war against Ukraine, flooding the country with over 100,000 men and actively committing war crimes. There is universal agreement that this is unacceptable and most of the world is united in calling for Russia to end the aggression, but Russian President Vladimir Putin has sworn to continue even in the face of what conventional wisdom considers tough sanctions. To be sure, Senator Cruz is advocating getting even tougher, a boycott of Russian oil entirely amid even more massive sanctions on the financial sector will surely crush the Russian economy, or at least that is the hope. This will have the secondary effect of punishing the Russian people, perhaps pushing them to the brink of starvation in some areas. The global economy will also suffer as a result. At a minimum, we can expect massive increases in the price of oil, but it could be much worse than that. There is the potential for shortages and scarcity that might prevent people from procuring basic necessities like heating their homes.
It also remains unclear whether the policy would even work: We’ve tried crushing sanctions against the dictators in both Iran and North Korea, and neither have forced the sort of changes in behavior we anticipated. Russia might well be able to muddle through with help from China. In the meantime, we can expect increased military action in Ukraine, more war crimes, more civilian deaths, and the risk that an incident expands the sphere of war to other European countries. The real question then is whether or not these risks and moral hazards are worse or outweigh those of an assassination. Of course, this is by no means easy to ascertain, but neither is the potential success or failure of any other policy proposed. Assassination, however, has the obvious benefit of targeting a single individual, rather than risking the lives and livelihoods of thousands or even millions. It is true that we cannot say what happens afterwards, Putin’s replacement could certainly be worse, but that is equally true of any aggressive course of action. There are those advocating for regime change in Russia right now, from Ben Wittes of the Brookings Institution to Richard Haass, the President of the Council on Foreign Relations, and no one knows what such a policy might bring about. Some, like Michael McFaul, a former ambassador to Russia for President Barack Obama, believe the entire Russian people are accountable, encouraging open revolution in the streets. Last week, he tweeted, “There are no more ‘innocent’ ‘neutral’ Russians anymore. Everyone has to make a choice— support or oppose this war. The only way to end this war is if 100,000s, not thousands, protest against this senseless war. Putin can’t arrest you all!”
Are we really to believe that these options innately more moral or rational than simply assassinating President Putin? It’s not as if President Putin himself hasn’t used the technique in the past. The Washington Post has described the Russian strongman as “an expert at poisoning dissidents.” At least 10 of his critics have died violently or under inexplicable circumstances. It is believed that he ordered the poisoning of Boris Nemstov in Moscow on February 27, 2015 and Alexander Litivenko while he was in London. He is also believed to have attempted the assassination of Alexei Navalny in 2020, who survived only to be imprisoned. These and others are seen as part of a broad effort to “liquidate” defectors according to the think tank, the Institute for Modern Russia. “As one former KGB officer, Oleg Kalugin, put it: ‘The KGB has a rule: never forgive, never forget’,” explained Olga Khvostunova, a researcher for the Institute. “So you have a pattern here – Russian intelligence services will go after dissidents and kill them only if these dissidents are viewed as defectors, traitors, enemies, who pose a serious threat to the regime’s security,” she added. These operations are carried out by Russia’s Federal Security Service, the offspring of the former KGB, of which Putin was a part in his early career, foreign intelligence services known as SVR, and the Russian military. “The real threat is posed to former KGB, SVR, GRU or other intelligence officers who decide to defect,” according to Ms. Khvostunova. “After the Soviet Union collapsed, Russia’s foreign intelligence service suffered a blow, funding decreased dramatically. Some analysts point out that during that time the practice of political assassinations abroad stopped. However, with Vladimir Putin’s rise to power, special services bloomed and prospered.”
Ultimately, all of this underlies the fact that the free world has yet to develop or implement an effective means to deal with rogue states and murderous tyrants in the modern era. Vladimir Putin is a cold-hearted killer who terrorizes his own people and threatens his neighbors, mounting incursions into Georgia and Ukraine long before this new full scale invasion. He refuses to comply with anything resembling international law or operate according to any moral code except the pursuit of power, and yet he has been widely accepted by the international community for over two decades. Right now, Russia heads the United Nations Security Council, putting them in the bizarre position of being able to veto any bills that might condemn or sanction their own invasion. Presidents of both parties have tried, repeatedly, to treat him as an honest actor on the world stage, one who can be dealt with using normal diplomatic means. There have been countless meetings, summits, even a Russian reset, and yet none of it mattered to President Putin himself. He went ahead with his invasion anyway, despite repeated calls for “constructive dialogue.”
The impulse to engage bad-actors through diplomatic means is, of course, a good one, but the question remains: What if those means fail? How long can the free world tolerate a monster at the head of a powerful state, one unwilling to abide by anything we might consider decent or normal? Why is it moral to allow this to occur when the perpetrators themselves are immoral? There is an old expression that you can’t cheat the devil, meaning normal rules don’t apply when you are confronted by evil. President Putin has been at it for twenty two years, but all our efforts lead only to war with no shortage of bloodshed in between either. If we could go back in time and assassinate him before any of this, should we? It’s not an easy question to answer, nor should anything I have written be considered an endorsement of assassination as a dipolomatic tool. There are obvious reasons why we don’t want to live in a world where disputes between countries are settled by killing leaders and other officials. At the same time, it seems to me a fair enough question to ask when all else fails and it might be the only way to avoid the suffering and deaths of thousands.