The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Lindsey Graham calls for assassinating Putin — while offering comparisons that show how fraught that is

Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) attend a White House event on March 3. (Sarah Silbiger for The Washington Post)
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For the second time in two nights Thursday, viewers of Fox News’s prime-time programming were greeted with a call to assassinate Russian President Vladimir Putin. First came Sean Hannity saying we need to “cut the head of the snake off” amid Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. Then Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) appeared on the same show Thursday and suggested that Russians themselves should do the deed. “I’m begging you in Russia … you need to step up to the plate and take this guy out,” Graham said.

Graham soon made clear he was indeed deadly serious, issuing a tweet shortly after the appearance comparing his would-be Russian assassin to Brutus, who assassinated Julius Caesar, and Claus von Stauffenberg, a German military figure who tried to assassinate Adolf Hitler in 1944. By Friday morning, Graham was tripling down on “Fox & Friends.”

Graham’s call was greeted with bipartisan condemnation, and The Washington Post’s Julian Mark laid out the many pitfalls of the approach after Hannity’s call the night before. Thus far, both of them remain on an island, despite allegations that Putin has engaged in war crimes. (NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg accused Putin on Friday of “a blatant violation of international law.”)

And indeed, to look at the limits of this approach, you need only look at the historical parallels Graham himself put forward.

Marcus Junius Brutus was a leader of the successful plot to assassinate Julius Caesar in 44 B.C. The plot was hatched as Caesar increasingly claimed autocratic powers in the struggling Roman Republic. After the assassination, Brutus delivered a speech hailing it as restoring the republic.

Instead, though, this led to a hugely deadly power struggle, which included several civil wars — and ultimately culminated in Rome installing its first emperor, Augustus. Some believe Caesar’s assassination prevented a separate and extremely deadly conquest by Caesar, but it certainly went a long way to birthing the Roman Empire.

Perhaps the more relevant parallel is Stauffenberg, and precisely because of the very thing Graham acknowledged: that it wasn’t successful. While the effort has been hailed throughout history as a courageous attempt to stop a madman — and has been immortalized in American film and hailed by German leaders — the reality is complicated.

Stauffenberg in July 1944 hid a bomb in a briefcase and tried to detonate it near Hitler. It wound up merely injuring Hitler and killing several others. Stauffenberg was soon executed, along with as many as 5,000 others amid Hitler’s purge. He wound up continuing to lead the country the better part of a year, ultimately killing himself when Allied forces closed in on him.

The plot coincided with a necessary attempt to launch a coup after Hitler’s death — to prevent someone like Heinrich Himmler from assuming power. But it’s not at all clear that it would have succeeded, especially given the nationalistic fervor that still existed in the country. What’s more, it had already become clear by 1943 that Allied forces were closing in on Hitler, and the final year of his reign wound up being exceptionally deadly.

The questions from there are whether a successful assassination would have stopped that, and whether the failure of the attempt contributed to increased deaths as the walls closed in. There is also the question of what it meant for the post-war period; some have wagered that a successful assassination bringing the war to an end in 1944 would have allowed the Soviet Union to more fully dominate Europe, given that the West didn’t have as much of a foothold on the continent at that point.

And indeed, that raises the crucial point: what of the unintended consequences — either of failure or success? While we’ve seen scenes of extraordinary Russian resistance to the invasion of Ukraine, it’s difficult to gauge where the country as a whole stands. And beyond that, more practically speaking, how do you assassinate someone who doesn’t seem willing to get close even to his top advisers?

Two professors, Benjamin F. Jones and Benjamin A. Olken, looked at the former issue in a 2008 paper for the National Bureau of Economic Research. They concluded that successful assassinations tend to be a little more likely than unsuccessful ones to steer countries toward democracy. But they conclude that assassination attempts overall produce “at most modest directional shifts in democracy or war on average.”

And that’s particularly the case since World War II (albeit with a small data sample):

First, there is weak evidence that successful assassination attempts, compared to failed assassination attempts, tend to hasten the end of intense wars (i.e. wars with greater than 1000 battle deaths). This effect … suggests that successful assassination lowers the probability of continued, intense conflict by 25 percentage points. Although the effect is quite large in magnitude, it is only marginally significant … and is not significant when we restrict to the post World War II period.

A separate 2006 paper from Zaryab Iqbal and Christopher J. Zorn argued that countries in which there is a “regularized” means of succession — which there is in Russia, in contrast to many countries that have seen assassinations of leaders — the effects of assassination are “muted”:

In non-regulated succession systems, the effect of an assassination is to increase generalized instability by roughly one-third of a standard deviation. … In contrast, its effect in regulated systems is actually negative: in such systems, assassinations appear to increase political stability (smooth line), albeit very slightly.

Beyond all of that, there is the fact that — by virtue of a U.S. senator and a prominent conservative commentator talking about this — Russia could credibly argue that any attempt on Putin’s life was the work of its American opponents.

Graham seems to be going for a more middle-ground approach than Hannity offered the night before, by urging Russians to take Putin out themselves. But as with a no-fly zone, just because it doesn’t sound like the most extreme option doesn’t mean it’s not extreme — and doesn’t carry with it all kinds of unintended consequences that leaders such as Graham should consider.