A 3-year-old Ukrainian American boy — one of our children — has the same reaction every time he hears about the war in Ukraine. He says he will defeat “the bad guy” leading this war by throwing him into a prickly cactus, crushing him with a falling tower or pummeling him with an airplane brandishing a hammer.
Despite the parental desire to teach nonviolence, it’s easy to see these scenarios for what they are: The naive fantasies of a child who wants a quick way to make everything okay.
Unfortunately, much of the world seems to be holding out hope for a similar fantasy. Some imagine an assassination. Some say the international community’s debilitating sanctions will lead to the neutralization of Russian President Vladimir Putin, perhaps through an uprising of the populace or sufficient internal pressure to get him to change course. Some say he will be betrayed by his inner circle. And then everything will be okay.
As Ukrainian American economists with close ties and expertise in the region, we want to be clear: It is extremely unlikely that Russians will get rid of Putin in the near future. We need to let go of these fantasies and think through other options instead.
Assassination attempts seldom work. We’ve heard German colleagues say: “We need a Claus von Stauffenberg in Russia right now.” Yet von Stauffenberg was just one in a long line of would-be assassins whose plots against Adolf Hitler failed. Putin is even more paranoid than Hitler, judging from his conspicuously distant seating arrangements. Placing our hopes on an assassination is not only naive, but is widely seen as immoral.
Russian masses will not rise up against Putin. Russia’s disinformation campaign is comprehensive and unrelenting. Opposition politicians are jailed or exiled, independent media has been shut down, and draconian new laws promise up to 15 years in prison to anyone who speaks the truth about the invasion of Ukraine. Bred on this propaganda, most Russians say their president is in the right, that the Russian military has not deliberately targeted civilian areas and that Ukrainians are Nazis. Even relatives of Ukrainians in Russia do not believe the accounts of their fathers, sons, daughters and best friends about the atrocities committed by the Russian army. Protesters number in the hundreds or thousands — compared with tens of thousands who came out just a year ago in response to Alexei Navalny’s jailing — and they’re immediately rounded up by police. At the same time, Putin’s approval ratings have surged since the invasion.
We can’t hold out hope that the punishing sanctions will wake people up. Recall that prior generations of Russians remained behind an iron curtain and endured shortages for decades. With independent news sources shut down or forced into exile, Russians will continue to believe they’re fighting against a U.S.-backed enemy. Many Russians are more idealistic than materialistic and would be willing to suffer through higher prices and shortages as a matter of principle. Ukrainians’ heroic willingness to risk their lives to preserve their independence has surprised many in the West. Ironically, Russians share Ukrainians’ willingness to put up with sacrifices — except their sacrifices will be made in service of the grandiose visions of a tyrant who has manipulated their patriotism.
As for the Russian elites, they are unlikely to rein in Putin. Historically, there’s been little coordination among Russian oligarchs, who are accustomed to competing against one another. The cleansing of the Russian economic elite over the past decades means those who remain have chosen to toe the line rather than lose their wealth — or their lives. The chosen few at the very top tend to be Putin’s former KGB colleagues, who think just like him. It’s extremely risky for anyone in the inner circle to act out, and anyone who succeeds Putin is likely to remain on the same path.
The attraction of the fantasy is understandable: getting rid of Putin is the one straightforward outcome that would suit everyone in the West. Ukraine would be saved. NATO would not need to get involved. Germans and Hungarians would not need to pay more for gas. Economists call such ideal outcomes the “first best.” We are all guilty of indulging in this particular first-best fantasy.
The problem with first-best outcomes is that in many cases they are not feasible. Then we need to think of the “second best” — the most we can achieve within a set of constraints. Our current constraints are these: Russians will not stop Putin’s war; Putin would rather level his neighbor than accept the humiliation of defeat; NATO will not get directly involved. So if Putin remains, what’s the best the United States and Europe can hope for?
The reality might look like this: Putin will raze Ukrainian cities to the ground and continue targeting civilians with terror tactics and blockades, but he will never break the resistance completely. A bloody, drawn-out conflict might do to Russia what the war in Afghanistan did to the Soviet Union, but the most harm will be to the people of Ukraine. The question is whether inflicting this level of damage would effectively achieve one of Putin’s objectives: making Ukraine too unstable to accept into either the E.U. or NATO. And would a long war in Ukraine sufficiently weaken Russia economically and militarily to deter Putin from future targets such as Finland, Sweden and ex-Soviet republics? Of course, different outcomes are potentially feasible with different constraints. Ukrainian people and their government have been vocal in calling for better alternatives from both Russia and the West — including President Volodymyr Zelensky’s videos appealing directly to the Russian people and pleading for a no-fly zone. But Russia and Putin remain steadfast in continuing the war, and NATO has been determined to limit its involvement.
The reason for the persistent fantasy of overthrowing Putin is that it’s psychologically easier to dream than it is to acknowledge that the West’s second-best outcome could involve destroying Ukraine. But this is not fair to the millions of Ukrainians who are risking their lives to stand up for democracy and the right to self-determination. The least we can do for them is to stop clinging to the fantasy that the “Putin problem” will resolve itself as easily as a 3-year-old’s game. We need to start thinking seriously and creatively through the second-best outcomes, which of them are acceptable to us — and at what humanitarian cost.