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A moral case for the elimination of Vladimir Putin

By Will Cathcart

Russians are pouring into Georgia, fleeing their czar’s command of mobilization. It is unfortunate they aren’t staying home to fight their dictator instead of Ukraine, especially contrasted with the brave women being beaten in Iran and still taking to the streets.

At the same time, every Russian I meet here is one less who can be sent to Ukraine. So, I have mixed feelings about their arrival, and I’m dubious of anyone who claims they know the answer to the question of refuge for Russians fleeing mobilization. Of course, everyone on social media is sure they know the answer. The further from the conflict the more certain these experts are. Sometimes I wonder if our certainty will be our downfall. Will the attempt to be right will supersede the attempt to do right?

History shows that we all pay for our hubris; I know Putin will eventually. However, I fear it won’t be in time to save the brave Ukrainians on the front who now fight for a world in which we live so comfortably. Their actions and the outcome of this war will shape the world of our children and their children. I pray Ukraine is victorious.

As for this parade of Russians running from their war, it’s yet another strand of this Gordian knot that, like the ancient myth, will determine the rule of Asia.

Our late great friend Gene Poteat often used the word Byzantine. I’m beginning to grasp the meaning of that word, which means that I still do not understand. If one thinks one knows the answer to this conflict, one is likely wrong. And it is a dangerous time to be wrong.

The Baltic contingency, with whom my ideas often align as they are closer to the perils of Putin than anyone, does not believe that the fleeing Russians should find refuge in a Europe that they have allowed their leader to threaten to its core. The Baltic contingency sees Putin as the problem of the Russian people and his downfall as their burden. So, to them, seeing Russians now running away to save their own skin is not progress.

To be fair, most Russians I speak with talk about going home, but they refer to the timing of their return as being, “After Putin,” as if that too is a certainty. I want to believe they know something I do not. But it’s even more complicated than that.

The actions of the Russian army, uncovered as villages are liberated, reveal that the violence against Ukrainians isn’t just a Putin problem nor is it just a Ukrainian problem. Russian war crimes are an everybody problem. Putin set free a kind of violence that is impossible to contain. You take away Putin and those men remain. The solution to the problem involves the social fabric of Russia that allowed Putin’s rise in the first place.

Others see these fleeing Russians as an opportunity to welcome them with democracy and weaken Russia. The problem with that is that these aren’t ideological refugees. They are fleeing citizens. And tanks tend to follow Russian citizens sometimes decades later as we’ve seen in Georgia; we may also witness this with the newly-minted citizens following this sham of a referendum.

The Russians fleeing to Georgia or taking flights to Istanbul and Yerevan are Russians with enough resources and connections to leave before Russia closes its borders, which seems imminent — and which, for many, already has happened. As we learned in the Cold War, for the largest country on earth, there aren’t many ways out of Russia.

Also, the Russians currently fleeing are not the ones likely to be conscripted into this war or at least sent to the front. Those men will come from poor villages in the east, where communities already have been hit hardest. Poor minorities fighting wars for wealthy men is nothing new. However, it does give me pause when I cheer after seeing the explosion of a Russian tank, but that is nothing compared with a Ukrainian casualty. A battle-hardened Ukrainian is worth ten Russian soldiers. They’ve proven that the hard way, and that is not going to change.

That is what scares me the most. When Ukrainians say they will fight to the last man, they mean it. We simply cannot allow an entire country to suffer the fate of Mariupol. But that is exactly what a Ukrainian defeat would look like. Complete annihilation. It’s nothing short of genocide. What will the “realists” say then?

Regardless, there is a Russian brain drain gushing west and a labor drain of mostly central Asian workers gushing east. This will be devastating in the long run, but I don’t see it having an impact on the major battles of today.

Kherson, where it all began, as Rob and I saw, is where it will all go down. As the rain comes and is followed by the cold, a protracted battle in Kherson seems likely. If the Ukraine Army can’t take back Kherson, then Odesa is at risk and Ukraine could lose its entire coastline. For Russia, Kherson is the gateway to Crimea, and Ukraine has proven that Crimea could come into play. This is something no one would have dreamed was possible back in February. Rumors of the FSB brass deserting Crimea and the beach view explosions we saw in August show that the Russians know their referendums are fiction. The referendums currently being held have little bearing on Russia or Ukraine — ballots at gunpoint never do. The point of the referendums is to reinforce a protracted threat that Putin hopes will scare the West enough to change the momentum of the war. The referendums are theater.

What also bothers me is that the same experts who in 2014 argued the referendums were valid are still giving analysis today. There is so little accountability in the news business. When headlines match what is most convenient for Washington, it is time to ask more questions.

This weekend I spoke with Russians who had spent 48 hours crossing the Georgian border. A group showed up at our Airbnb having crossed the border on bicycles in the cold rain. I did not turn them away. Who knows what my Estonian friends would say? But kindness and civility go a long way in such times. When we give those things up, then Putin wins. I’ve learned so much from talking to the Russians who have fled their country these last seven months.

Each day this situation changes. The stakes are only getting higher. De-escalation seems as impossible as war seemed back in January. I’ll be watching closely to how our leaders react to the “results” of the fake referendums. We know what the results will be. Again, the point of the referendums is to make Putin's nuclear threats seem more plausible.

I see little difference between living in a world where we are ruled by the threat of nuclear weapons and a world where we are ruled by the use of them. I accept neither.

That Putin thinks a fake referendum will make the West bow to his threats says more about the West’s past appeasement of Putin than it does about Putin’s intentions. Putin has been threatening to use nuclear weapons all along. He is not going to stop. We cannot eliminate the threat of nuclear weapons from this equation. That leaves only one possibility. I’ve said it in this paper and elsewhere before and I’ll say it again. When a leader threatens the world with nuclear weapons, that leader surrenders his right to exist. Just as I do not support the death penalty on moral grounds, I do not support Putin’s right to exist. Instead of allowing Putin to normalize the nuclear threat, it is time to normalize regime change by Putin’s assassination.

As Putin has proven time and again, appeasing him does not deter his use of violence; it enables it. There is a chance Putin may use a small tactical nuke in an attempt to end the war. Even that will not work. And if he does, the burden of that choice rests solely on Putin — not his victims. He understands only one language — that of force. Neither America nor Ukraine can cause Vladimir Putin to use a nuclear weapon, but together we can prevent it.


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