“Wanted: Dead or alive. Vladimir Putin for mass murder,” the online image read.
A California-based entrepreneur posted the image to his LinkedIn page in early March with a short note offering $1 million to the Russian officer who arrests Putin. The next day, as Russian military forces escalated attacks on civilian areas of Ukraine’s largest cities, U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham publicly took up a similar call.
“Is there a Brutus in Russia? Is there a more successful Colonel Stauffenberg in the Russian military?” Graham wrote on Twitter, referencing the Roman politician who assassinated Julius Caesar and the German officer who attempted to kill Adolf Hitler.
“The only way this ends is for somebody in Russia to take this guy out. You would be doing your country – and the world – a great service,” he wrote.
As the White House has emphasized that regime change is not U.S. policy, researchers and academics warn Graham’s comments are dangerous to the United States because they could be interpreted as the U.S. disregarding international law and be used to fuel disinformation in Russia.
“There are so many dangerous aspects to his comments,” said Anthony Arend, co-founder of the Institute for International Law & Politics at Georgetown University. “It sets the possible precedent that others will be able to look at the United States and say, ‘Well, they’re advocating it. Why don’t we simply move to a foreign policy that more broadly incorporates assassinations or targeting regime leaders?'”
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‘That is not the position of the United States government’
The White House and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have denounced Graham’s suggestions. Hours after Graham’s initial comments, White House press secretary Jen Psaki made clear the statements are not the policy of the United States.
“No, we are not advocating for killing the leader of a foreign country or a regime change,” Psaki told reporters, adding, “That is not the position of the United States government and certainly not a statement you’d hear come from the mouth of anybody working in this administration.”
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, called Graham’s suggestion “an exceptionally bad idea.”
“Use massive economic sanctions; BOYCOTT Russian oil & gas; and provide military aid so the Ukrainians can defend themselves. But we should not be calling for the assassination of heads of state,” Cruz wrote on Twitter.
Russian officials also condemned Graham’s comments. The Russian ambassador to the U.S., Anatoly Antonov, called the comments “unacceptable and outrageous.”
“It becomes scary for the US fate, which is run by such irresponsible and unprofessional politicians,” he wrote in a Facebook post on March 4. “We demand official explanations and a strong condemnation of the criminal statements of this American.”
Yet Graham doubled down on his calls in a press conference Wednesday, when a reporter asked: “Do you stand by your call to have Putin be assassinated?”
“Yeah, I hope he’ll be taken out, one way or the other,” Graham said. “I don’t care how they take him out. I don’t care if we send him to the Hague and try him. I just want him to go. Yes, I’m on record.”
Graham said he was not advocating for the U.S. to invade Russia or send troops to Ukraine: “I am asking the Russian people to rise up and end this reign of terror.” Graham’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
‘It gives Russia a particular case to point at’
Nika Aleksejeva, a Latvia-based researcher with the Digital Forensic Research Lab at the Atlantic Council, a Washington-based think tank, warned Graham’s comments fuel a Kremlin narrative that portrays the U.S. as a violent and lawless sponsor of terrorism, out to get Russia.
“The U.S. is painted as the great evil in Russia,” she said. “One of the disinformation narrative lines is that Ukraine is our brother nation, and Russia is forced to carry out this military operation because the U.S. made Ukraine go away from Russia – that the U.S. is to blame in all these problems that are now between Russia and Ukraine.”
Ukraine became independent in 1991 after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and many see Putin’s invasion as his attempt to regain the standing his country lost then.
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Aleksejeva, who monitors news outlets and social media in Russia, said Graham’s comments were perceived as a “diplomatic scandal” in Russia but weren’t shocking for consumers of state-sponsored media. That’s because audiences have been primed to expect threats from the U.S.
“It gives Russia a particular case to point at,” she said. “These comments are qualified as calls to terror attacks.”
Aleksejeva said she’s concerned Graham’s comments may be used in future Kremlin-backed propaganda campaigns to justify Russian aggression. “It opens opportunity for disinformation to be later created based on this particular event,” she said.
Why US can’t assassinate Putin despite killing other leaders
Engaging in or supporting others engaging in an assassination of Putin would violate a U.S. directive and international law, Arend said.
U.S. directives forbidding assassinations go as far back as 1863, when President Abraham Lincoln issued what is known as the Lieber Code. “Civilized nations look with horror upon offers of rewards for the assassination of enemies as relapses into barbarism,” the code states.
The Lieber Code formed the basis of the Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907. The international treaties state it is “especially forbidden” to “kill or wound treacherously individuals belonging to the hostile nation or army.” Other treaties, including the 1977 amendment protocol to the Geneva Conventions and the 1998 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, also speak to the issue.
Concerns about assassinations gained renewed attention in the U.S. in the 1970s, after a series of post-Watergate news reports and Congressional investigations revealed evidence of CIA assassination plots or support of assassination plots against Cuban President Fidel Castro and leaders in Chile, the Dominican Republic, South Vietnam and what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
“When this information became public, there was a public outrage,” Arend said.
President Gerald Ford responded in 1976 with an executive order banning “political assassinations,” followed by orders from Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan.
The standing directive, Reagan’s 1981 Executive Order 12333, states “no person, employed by or acting on behalf of the United States Government, shall engage in, or conspire to engage in, assassination.” The order does not define “assassination.”
Since then, the U.S. has justified numerous “targeted killings” of alleged terrorists as acts of self-defense. There is “no concrete, verifiable number of deaths from U.S. targeted killings,” according to Human Rights Watch.
Many recall the U.S. killing of Qasem Soleimani, a top Iranian general, more than two years ago, and of Osama bin Laden in 2011. In both cases, the men were seen under U.S. law as “combatants,” not civilians, in ongoing or potential armed conflicts, Arend said.
“It becomes complicated when we deal with someone like Putin. At present, the United States and Russia are not at war,” Arend said. “There is no way that the United States in its relationship to Russia could conceptualize that Putin is a combatant. He is a civilian leader of another country.”
There is “no doubt” the United States historically has violated international law, but Graham’s rhetoric creates a “moral equivalence” between the U.S. and Russia, he said.
“The type of activities which Putin himself has authorized are different from what the United States does,” Arend said.
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Hold Putin ‘criminally accountable using due process’
For the first time in public, President Joe Biden on Wednesday called Putin a “war criminal.” Secretary of State Antony Blinken agreed with him Thursday.
“Intentionally targeting civilians is a war crime,” Blinken said at a White House news briefing.
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Kathryn Sikkink, a professor of human rights policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, noted three international courts are investigating Russian actions: the International Court of Justice, International Criminal Court and European Court of Human Rights.
An assassination would rob Russia of the chance for legal justice and a stable transition in leadership, Sikkink said.
“If you’ve had leaders who’ve committed crimes, you want the new government to be able to put those leaders on trial and hold them criminally accountable using due process for crimes they’ve committed,” Sikkink said. “And if you find them guilty, to sentence them and imprison them.”