The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Sean Hannity suggested assassinating Putin. Experts say that’s illegal — and a bad strategy.

Fox News host Sean Hannity in 2019. (Frank Franklin II/AP)
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On his radio show Wednesday, Fox News host Sean Hannity suggested that Russian President Vladimir Putin should be assassinated — a move that he implied could resolve the war in Ukraine but that experts warned would only make things worse.

“What we really need in this crisis, more than anything else, is a worldwide condemnation,” Hannity said on “The Sean Hannity Show.” “And it’s a simple new rule that if you invade an innocent sovereign country, and you kill innocent men, women and children, you don’t deserve to live. That’s the bottom line.”

He continued, playing the part of someone who might question his wisdom: “ ‘Well, Hannity, we have an executive order that prohibits assassination of foreign leaders,’ and I’m like, ‘You cut the head of the snake off, and you kill the snake.’ ”

“And right now, the snake is Vladimir Putin,” Hannity added.

Russia’s assault on Ukraine has entered its eighth day, as intense fighting continues in major cities across the country. Putin has pushed forward with the incursion despite international condemnation and sanctions that have rocked Russia’s economy.

Russia claims control of vital port city in Ukraine, as convoy outside Kyiv remains stalled

Rachel VanLandingham, a professor and national security law expert at Southwestern Law School in Los Angeles, told The Washington Post that while it’s “understandable to want such a war criminal off the world’s stage,” killing Putin would be a bad idea for several reasons. First, she said, assassinating the Russian leader would be unlawful and “plain old murder” unless the United States was at war with Russia. As Hannity himself noted, a 1976 executive order by President Gerald Ford prohibits the United States government from carrying out political assassinations — an order that remains in effect and has become long-standing U.S. policy.

But there are other considerations.

Would “eliminating Putin solve the current crises?” VanLandingham wrote in an email. “Putin didn’t do this alone, and what if this turned domestic Russian sentiment against the US?”

Moreover, she said, such a move could compromise the United States’ legitimacy.

“If the US wants respect for the rule of law on the international stage, it shouldn’t break it in such a spectacular fashion,” VanLandingham wrote. So assassinating Putin is “unwise on legal, policy, and rule of law grounds, but not unreasonable to ask the question and completely reasonable to want the result.”

Steven Fish, a political science professor at the University of California at Berkeley, said killing Putin would not solve much.

“If the Americans assassinate Putin, they will make him a martyr at home rather than allowing his cult of lies, impunity, arrogance, egomania, and inhumanity to undo him,” Fish said in an email. “There is no poetic justice in our assassinating Putin and doing so would not discredit Putinism in Russia and around the world.”

“We need to leave the honor of taking Putin down to the Russian people,” he added, “who do not want this war and have already begun to turn against him.”

At great risk for Ukraine and Russia, Putin signals a dark endgame

During the same broadcast Wednesday, Hannity also suggested that NATO forces should strike the massive Russian military convoy of tanks and combat vehicles that has built up outside Kyiv.

“You know, if we can see on satellite imagery where the convoy is, I don’t know, maybe some smart country, maybe NATO, might take some of their fighter jets, or maybe they can use some drone strikes and take out the whole … convoy,” Hannity said. “And then nobody takes credit for it, so then Putin won’t know who to hit back.”

VanLandingham said that is a good strategy “only if NATO is willing to enter into” World War III.

“It is foolishly naive to believe that just because Putin doesn’t know who hit him he won’t respond with significant armed force against a NATO ally — look at the threats he’s already made,” VanLandingham wrote.

Furthermore, she said, even if such a strike did take place, Putin still has more tactical vehicles to replace whatever would be destroyed. “So how many strikes would it take?” she said. “Over how long?

“Enough to drag the striking party into war, sure seems.”