“For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power,” U.S. President Joe Biden said of his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, a month after Russia launched a brutal invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. Biden’s off-the-cuff remark, which his administration swiftly sought to walk back, did not merely reflect anger at the destruction unleashed by Putin’s war of choice. It also revealed the deeply held assumption that relations between Russia and the West cannot improve as long as Putin is in office. Such a sentiment is widely shared among officials in the transatlantic alliance and Ukraine, most volubly by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky himself, who last September ruled out peace talks until a new Russian leader is in place.
The first barrier to a post-Putin Russia is, of course, Putin himself.
There is good reason to be pessimistic about the prospects of Russia’s changing course under Putin. He has taken his country in a darker, more authoritarian direction, a turn intensified by the invasion of Ukraine. The wrongful detention of The Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich in March and the sentencing of the opposition activist Vladimir Kara-Murza to a 25-year prison term in April, for example, are eerily reminiscent of measures from Soviet times. Once leaders grow to rely on repression, they become reluctant to exercise restraint for fear that doing so could suggest weakness and embolden their critics and challengers. If anything, Putin is moving Russia more and more toward totalitarianism as he attempts to mobilize Russian society in support of not just his war on Ukraine but also his antipathy to the West.
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