Russia Needs Another Khrushchev “Intervention”
Erratic leadership is best ended internally
I have always liked the old southern aphorism that “even a blind dog finds a bone every now and then.” And in contemporary American politics there is no dog more blind than South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, despite competition that is disturbingly stiff.
Graham recently called on someone in Russia to assassinate their stunningly misguided leader, Vladimir Putin. The comment suggested just how badly Graham is dependent on adult supervision, a dependency that has been glaringly absent since the death of his old mentor, Senator John McCain. Nonetheless, despite his unsophisticated, immature, inarticulate, and ham-handed suggestion, Graham did stumble over something useful: Russians need to step up and remove their ruthless, erratic leader.
It has happened before. Fifty-eight years ago, in mid-October 1964, three members of the ruling Politburo (or Presidium) of the Soviet Union banded together to remove premier of the Soviet Union and Communist Party General Secretary Nikita Khrushchev. It would be useful to international order and global political hygiene if contemporary Russian leadership would do the same.
Khrushchev was, and remains today, something of a paradox. Ironically enough, before World War II he was the Soviet commissar running Ukraine. During the war, he had a distinguished record, returned to Ukraine afterwards, then was called to Moscow where he began his rise to ultimate power. When soviet dictator Joseph Stalin died in March 1953, Khrushchev was among the senior leaders, but did not immediately replace Stalin. Like Mecca after the death of Muhammad, the Soviet Union had no clear succession plan, leading to several months of relative uncertainty as to who was in charge. But after considerable internal jockeying, and no small amount of palace intrigue, Khrushchev emerged as the leader.
But in October 1964, Khrushchev’s rivals within the communist party and the government deposed him largely due to his erratic and cantankerous behavior. Indeed, in many ways he was regarded as a tremendous embarrassment on the international stage. Khrushchev was rotund, bald, wore ill-fitting suits, and had a penchant for public outbursts like his famous pounding of his shoe on the table at a UN General Assembly session in 1959. Indeed, the visual and behavioral contrast between Khrushchev and US President John F. Kennedy after the latter’s election in 1960 was — shall we say — stark.
But what primarily resulted in Khrushchev’s removal were policy failures. Although regarded as an expert in agriculture, his agricultural policies were largely failures, but more importantly were his foreign policy stumbles: a schism he created with communist China (ultimately exploited by President Richard Nixon), the Hungarian revolt in 1956, the Berlin wall in 1961, and finally the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. In the Cuban crisis, one precipitated by Khrushchev’s decision to secretly place nuclear armed missiles on the island, missiles that directly threatened nearly the entire United States, their forced withdrawal by President Kennedy was seen as a Russian humiliation.
It was too much for Khrushchev’s politburo colleagues. In October 1964, a group led by Leonid Brezhnev forced Khrushchev’s resignation and retirement. Fortunately for Khrushchev, breaking with past Soviet behavior the new leaders allowed him to retire to a country dacha rather than executing him. Khrushchev lived there until his death in 1971, while Brezhnev became the supreme Soviet leader ruling until his own death in 1982.
Two lessons should be drawn from this. First, in the past Russian leaders when faced with international embarrassment have stepped in to replace the source of the embarrassment. Certainly, on the contemporary international stage it is difficult to imagine a more profound embarrassment than launching a brutish invasion of a neighboring nation resulting in being condemned in the United Nations General Assembly by a vote of 141 to 5 — with thirty-five abstentions. That rebuke made even more pronounced because the four voting with Russia include fellow international pariahs: North Korea, Belarus, Eretria, and Syria.
The second lesson is more indirect and somewhat more disturbing, relating not to Russia but to ourselves. Some current American leaders, in this case most notably Lindsey Graham, are themselves unevolved, cartoonish figures. Graham’s call for Putin to be murdered shows that he is less sophisticated, politically astute, and personally developed than even Leonid Brezhnev. Perhaps, given Graham’s warm embrace of Donald Trump over the past few years — well, we knew that.
Still, like the “blind dog” previously mentioned, Graham dug up a useful bone. Somewhere in Putin’s corrupt government there must be some, like Leonid Brezhnev and his fellow plotters, who feel a sense of embarrassment at what their reckless leader has done. One hopes that is the case, but there are differences from conditions in 1964.
Back in that era, although the Soviet leadership certainly led a privileged life, there was — at least as backdrop — an ideological belief in communism and Marxist economic theory, and the view that this misguided philosophy was in a deadly, dog-eat-dog competition with western democracy and its liberal values. Putin and his cronies seem to have no such philosophical underpinnings. Instead, they are directly motivated by power and greed. We are, therefore, waiting to see if the embarrassment, the loss of power and prestige, the international condemnation, and — perhaps most significantly — the loss of personal wealth proves sufficient to force necessary action.
If the Russian ruling elite does not have such sentiments, then the only hope is with the Russian people, who will hopefully conclude that Vladimir Putin has led them to a place they don’t want to be, and left them with a reputation they don’t want to have. Meanwhile, Ukraine suffers and bleeds.