Regime change: Vladimir Putin takes the presidential oath beside Boris Yeltsin, in Moscow in May 2000. Photo: Wikipedia

US President Joe Biden’s ill-advised and reportedly ad-libbed call for regime change in Russia last week implicitly raised the question what kind of government Washington has in mind should President Vladimir Putin be deposed or voluntary step down ahead of Russia’s 2024 presidential election.

Biden’s line of what might charitably be called “thinking” has long tempted American policymakers. Writing in 1951, the diplomat George F Kennan observed:

“The very virulence with which Americans reject the outlook and practice of those who now hold power in the Kremlin implies in the strongest possible way the belief in, and desire for, an alternative – for some other Russian outlook and some other set of practices in Russia to take the place of those we know today.

“Yet it may be permitted to ask whether there is any clear image in our minds of what that outlook and those practices might be and of the ways by which Americans might promote progress toward them.”

These are the opening lines to Kennan’s Foreign Affairs essay “America and the Russian Future,” an indispensable corrective to the kinds of magical thinking that mark Washington’s current approach toward Russia and the world.

The planning for regime change in Russia has been under way for at least a decade. In an e-mail congratulating a State Department aide on her promotion to the White House national security  staff, then-secretary of state Hillary Clinton wrote, “… we need you at the White House to help plan and execute our Russian strategy post-Putin.”

Biden’s speech last weekend at the Warsaw Castle gave a clue as to what he and the US foreign-policy establishment have in mind “post-Putin.” In Biden’s telling, “Over the last 30 years, the forces of autocracy have revived all across the globe.” And Russia, which “has strangled democracy” at home, now seeks to do so elsewhere.

Biden’s speech attempted to recast the war in Ukraine as part of a larger battle “between democracy and autocracy, between liberty and repression, between a rules-based order and one governed by brute force.”

The idea of a world divided between democracy and autocracy is one this White House seems unusually wedded to, but is one that had been, for many years, associated with neoconservative ideologues like Robert Kagan and the late US senator John McCain.

Kennan, however, had a different view. Americans, he observed, have an “inveterate tendency to judge others by the extent to which they contrive to be like ourselves.”

This tendency, which manifests itself in all the self-indulgent talk about “democracies and autocracies,” ignores the inescapable fact that, “Forms of government are forged mainly in the fire of practice, not in the vacuum of theory. They respond to national character and to national realities.” 

Kennan continued:

“The ways by which peoples advance toward dignity and enlightenment in government are things that constitute the deepest and most intimate processes of national life. There is nothing less understandable to foreigners, nothing in which foreign interference can do less good.”

Operating on the assumption that a post-Putin Russia would be more inclined to accept Washington’s prerogatives would seem a mistake, yet another example in a long history of wishful thinking, of overreaching, of expecting too much.  

RAND political scientist Samuel Charap cautions against indulging in rosy post-Putin scenarios, noting that “the scenario of a liberal reformist successor coming to power who begs forgiveness for Putin’s sins would be great, but it would also be great to win the lottery. Equally if not more plausible are regime-change scenarios that work out badly for everyone, Ukraine included.”

It’s not as if the US hasn’t tried a heavy-handed approach before. In the 1990s, the Bill Clinton administration’s attempt to remake Russia along neoliberal economic lines, along with its seemingly endless efforts to prop up the insatiably corrupt regime of Boris Yeltsin, resulted in the largest economic and demographic collapse ever recorded in peacetime.

Indeed, Washington’s attempt to remake Russia socially, economically and politically in the 1990s quite inadvertently resulted in the Russia we are confronted with today. 

So why does Washington insist on believing that its attempts to reshape Russia from the outside will somehow, someday work out? 

Kennan himself was under no such illusions:

“Of one thing we may be sure: No great and enduring change in the spirit and practice of government in Russia will ever come about primarily through foreign inspiration or advice. To be genuine, to be enduring and to be worth the hopeful welcome of other peoples such a change would have to flow from the initiative and efforts of the Russians themselves.”

The sooner President Biden and his advisers come around to the late George Kennan’s way of thinking regarding the desirability of regime change, the better.

James W Carden is a former adviser to the US-Russia Bilateral Presidential Commission at the US Department of State. His articles and essays have appeared in a wide variety of publications including The Nation, The American Conservative, Responsible Statecraft, The Spectator, UnHerd, The National Interest, Quartz, the Los Angeles Times and American Affairs.