Putin’s bet: kill a president

Eighty years On Monday, in the early months of World War II, as Japan engulfed much of Asia after sinking the American battleship fleet at Pearl Harbor, 16B-25 bombers under the command of Lieutenant Colonel James H. Doolittle launched from the USS Hornet aircraft carrier to strike Tokyo in a daring one-way raid. Little physical damage was done. But the psychological effect was massive. The invulnerability of Japan promised by the top brass has been shattered.

It’s a good thing that Russian President Vladimir Putin, like many Americans today, probably doesn’t know this story well. With the sinking of its flagship of the Black Sea Fleet, the Moscowpresumably by Ukraine Neptune cruise missiles (or incompetence by the crew), Putin needs his own “shock and awe” to recover from this equivalent of the Doolittle raid. What could it be?

Given the influx of presidents and prime ministers in kyiv in support of the Zelensky government and the magnificent Ukrainian resistance, the White House plans to send a high representative. No doubt President Biden is carefully assess if he has to make this trip. Or would he send the vice-president or secretaries of state or defense appropriate?

If Biden were to leave, most Americans would likely support him. But a serious blowback would be inevitable. The president would be at personal risk. If he were to be targeted or killed, what would be the response, if there was one?

Republicans would call such a trip reckless in the extreme. In the event of a disaster, many will wonder if the vice president is ready or able to assume the duties of general manager and commander-in-chief. And if someone other than the president were chosen, given all the other heads of state and government who made the trip to Kyiv, would that comparison be politically damaging to Biden?

From Putin’s perspective, how could the Kremlin exploit such a visit, no matter who represents the United States? Even a Cabinet Secretary would be a tempting target. As the Ukrainian army did its best to kill russian generalsPutin would like to even the score.

In times of war, assassinations of heads of state have been extremely rare. Winston Churchill would have believed that after the United States entered World War II and the battle reversed, kill hitler was a bad idea. The Führer was the Allies’ best weapon inasmuch as his so-called genius had turned to gotterdammerung. Killing Hitler could have led to a peace-seeking successor and thus derailed the goal of unconditional surrender.

The most successful World War II example of an assassination directed at a major leader was the plan to intercept and shoot down the plane carrying Japan’s senior admiral and architect of Pearl Harbor, Isokuro Yamamoto, in 1943 over the South Pacific. The plan worked perfectly as intended by the Commander of the United States Pacific Fleet, Admiral Chester Nimitz.

From Putin’s perspective, it is clear that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is a prime target. If Zelensky was killed, who would replace him? And would a successor have the same charisma to rally the nation and the West? And if President Biden was also in Kyiv, wouldn’t that raise the stakes?

Obviously, any visit by an American dignitary would be shrouded in the utmost secrecy and security. But suppose Russian intelligence assessed there was a likelihood of a visit from Biden at a certain time and date. Given the huge losses suffered by the Russian forces and the Moscow debacle, how could former KGB lieutenant colonel Putin assess his options?

Unlike America SEAL Team Six who sent Osama Bin Laden in 2011, Putin does not have this option. Therefore, the only certain, or nearly certain, way of ensuring the elimination of the presidents might be a nuclear attack wiping out Kyiv and possibly killing hundreds of thousands. In Putin’s mind, could such a barbaric and mind-boggling act cripple any US and NATO response and force a victory in Ukraine, however defined and whether Biden is there or not?

Dangerous in the extreme, such a decision could provoke a thermonuclear war. One of the scariest things about this horrific invasion is that this storyline is no longer limited to fiction or Hollywood action movies. And another nagging problem for President Biden is that if he does not go to Kyiv and there is serious speculation, it is clear that his opponents and critics will test his mettle.

Oh, for the days of Jimmy Doolittle!

Harlan Ullman, Ph.D, is a senior adviser to the Atlantic Council in Washington, DC and lead author of “shock and awe.” His latest book is, “The Fifth Horseman and the New Fool: How Massive Disruption Attacks Became the Looming Existential Danger to a Divided Nation and the World at Large.

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