So here’s a thought. I’m no Agatha Christie or Claus von Stauffenberg, but what about this? What about getting all the oligarchs together in one big, ornate room? If they’re in a WFH frame of mind, Zoom will do. It would be a bit like the meeting of the Five Families in The Godfather, but with thicker fingers and newer teeth.
The oligarchs probably know more about Putin than anyone except his plastic surgeon, furniture gilder, or food taster. Tell them, Look, you’ve lost a lot of your luster—not to mention boats, bank accounts, oil companies, football clubs, and girlfriends. It’s hard to imagine anyone outside of Ukraine who wants Putin removed more than his fellow kleptocrats do. Tell them to combine their forces—and their considerable resources—to eliminate the man, Murder on the Orient Express–style. All participants would be involved in the plot, but no single oligarch would get fingered for the hit.
Once Putin is no more, the plotters get their reward: possessions returned and restrictions removed. Belgravia and Knightsbridge in London and 57th Street in New York go back to being what they were before the war: shiny washing machines for laundering dodgy reputations and dirty money.
Eliminate the man Murder on the Orient Express–style. All participants would be involved in the plot, but no single oligarch would get fingered for the hit.
Russians, at least many of the ones who get news not dictated by Putin’s propaganda apparatus, are against this war. Pretty much the entire civilized world is against this war. NATO and the European Union, long cage-match venues for sparring national interests, have acted as one in opposition to the war. The Chinese are generally maintaining a polite distance from the sidelines. Even the Swiss—who are rarely against anything—are against this war.
Tens of thousands, perhaps even hundreds of thousands, of Russian protesters may eventually usher Putin out of office, but the damage he can do until that happens could be catastrophic. The Russians don’t have a realistic mechanism for ousting a leader—as they did back in 1964, when the Communist Party removed Nikita Khrushchev. As it now stands, Putin, who’s 69, can keep his job until 2036—that’s four more U.S. presidential cycles to tamper with. Protests and political opposition just aren’t going to cut it. The Orient Express way is faster. And, in this case, faster is better.
Putin himself has his work cut out for him. A third of the once vaunted Russian Army is made up of young conscripts, people yanked out of private life to serve a forced year in the military. And these young Gen Zers are probably a bit like Gen Zers elsewhere: fairly self-absorbed, somewhat entitled, and generally peaceful. Killing other people for reasons they don’t understand is not part of their collective makeup. Many of those serving in Ukraine were hoodwinked—told they were going on routine maneuvers. Few of them signed up for the horrors of all-out war. Since 1 in 13 Russians has relatives in Ukraine, at some point the laws of probability will have it that a Russian soldier is going to kill a member of his own family.
The Ukrainians, on the other hand, have assembled a volunteer resistance made up of fighters of all ages—and who share a powerful, visceral cause. A prolonged war on Ukrainian soil will not do Russia any favors. It’s rare that an invading force wins against an entrenched guerrilla operation, as the U.S. learned the hard way in Southeast Asia, and as the U.S. and Russia found in Afghanistan.
Here’s another thought. Don’t punish athletes, artists, and the like who issue words of support for the people of Ukraine but haven’t actively condemned Putin. They have families at home to think of. And most of them have to return to Russia once their touring is over. The prisons are bursting with brave Russian men and women who have spoken out against their leader. If you are Russian, this must always be in the back of your mind. And remember, as my co-editor, Alessandra Stanley—a formidable former Russia hand—says, Putin not only kills his enemies. He kills his friends. If you know anything about young dancers or musicians, politics is not generally front of mind. Scratching the Bolshoi Ballet’s program at the Royal Opera House in London, or asking music teachers to stay away from Tchaikovsky or Shostakovich, is hollow virtue signaling and does nothing for the people of Ukraine.
Don’t punish athletes, artists, and the like who issue words of support for the people of Ukraine but haven’t actively condemned Putin.
If press reports are true and Kremlin-backed hit squads are actively trying to kill Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky, this would be one of Putin’s many major miscalculations. Zelensky is not only arguably the most popular and admired leader on the world stage right now; he has done what leaders—Putin included—so rarely do: he leads from the front, rather than the rear. An assassination of this remarkable young man would elevate him to folk-hero status. Ukrainian statue-makers are going to be very busy if anything happens to Zelensky.
Putin’s going to be fighting this fight not only in the vast expanses of Ukraine but at home. Young Muscovites, who have lost access to their iPhones, ATM machines, Visa and Mastercard, McDonald’s, Ikea, Netflix, Minecraft, and other favored elements of Western culture, are not going to have their hearts won over by hardships imposed by prolonged food shortages, a plunging ruble, martial law, and military conscription.
Putin’s also going to need a whole lot of soldiers in the coming years—by some estimates, between 250,000 and 500,000 in Ukraine alone. The country is big—about the size of Texas—and has a population a bit greater than Canada’s. There are 1,700 miles of coastline. There are seven stretches of shared land borders with other nations. Perhaps Trump could give Putin instruction on wall-building. Invasions can come and go in a blink. Occupations can last forever and are ruinous, both spiritually and financially.
And here’s a final thought. The world has felt like a very small place these past couple of weeks. That’s a good thing. We have not seen global activism like this since, well, since early 2003, when much of humanity took to the streets in opposition to the American invasion of Iraq. This is the sort of global coming together we are going to need in the years to come to fight a foe even more treacherous and unpredictable than Putin—climate change. That’s the battle we will all need to be foot soldiers in. Oh, and we’ll need a leader like Zelensky.
Graydon Carter is a Co-Editor of AIR MAIL