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The longer the Russian war against Ukraine continues, the more likely it is that President Vladimir Putin’s regime will collapse.
Despite Putin’s bluster, the authoritarian regime he has constructed is exceedingly brittle. At the center stands Putin; surrounding him, the power-hungry loyalists he has folded into his inner circle. Some, called the siloviki, belong to powerful institutions such as the secret police or the army. Others, formally affiliated with various government agencies, are loyal only to Putin. In such a system, sycophantism is rewarded above good governance, empire-building runs rampant, policy loses its effectiveness, and corruption becomes routine.
The neo-tsarist ideology of Russian imperialism, Orthodox revival, and anti-Western Slavophilism that Putin has constructed has limited appeal to the cynical men who help him run Russia. Therefore, Putin’s ability to retain their loyalty rests primarily on his control of the country’s financial resources. Thanks to the record-high energy prices that accompanied his assumption of power in 1999, Putin was able to personally purloin some $45 billion and still have enough money to raise the country’s standard of living, strengthen the Russian military, and keep his cronies happy. No longer. Oil prices have collapsed and are likely to stay low; Western sanctions are hitting hard; and the Russian economy is on the downswing.
Sooner or later Putin will be forced to make some cuts, but it is hard to know where that money will come from. Given the ongoing war in Ukraine and his anti-Western ideological crusade, reducing military funding will be unfeasible. And Putin’s popularity would take a serious hit if he were to roll back support to the lower classes. The only option, therefore, may be to stop his cronies from dipping into state coffers, even if doing so will alienate them.
For 15 years, Putin’s record of success won him enormous public support. He crushed the Chechen rebellion, presided over military reforms, built infrastructure, improved the lives of ordinary Russians, and regularly outwitted the West. And then, just after the Sochi Olympics, he blew it all. The Crimean annexation has been an unmitigated economic disaster. The Russian war in eastern Ukraine has killed Russians by the thousands. Ukraine, which was well on its way to becoming a Russian vassal state under former President Viktor Yanukovych, has turned against the Kremlin. The ruble, along with the Russian economy, is in free fall, as Western sanctions bite. Putin, Russia’s “Man of the Year,” is now routinely compared to Adolf Hitler.
Beyond his policy mistakes, Putin also has an image problem. Fifteen years ago, Putin could pass himself off as a charismatic leader who, despite his diminutive size, was man enough to chase down Chechen rebels—in his own words—“even in the outhouse.” That tough-guy image was essential to Putin, who claimed that he could reestablish Russia’s imperial glory and needed to look the part. Now 62 years old, Putin looks tired, his face distended, and it’s hard to imagine that the two leggy singers who once sang, “I want a man just like Putin,” would still feel that way today.
Putin knows he’s in a tough spot. He started the war in Ukraine, and now it’s up to him to bring about some satisfactory conclusion, even though it’s clear from his erratic behavior that he lacks a strategy. He has no way to crush Ukraine without unleashing a global conflict. He has no way to erode Ukraine’s economy without simultaneously destroying Russia’s. Ironically, the one thing Putin could do easily—declare victory in the Donbas and withdraw his troops—is off limits for him, not because it’s politically unfeasible (most Russians would be delighted to get out of this mess), but because his own cult of personality forbids him from blinking.
All signs point to the eventual collapse of Putin’s regime.
Although 85 percent of Russians currently support the president, an Orange Revolution in Moscow—a city that has seen a series of mass anti-Putin demonstrations in the past few years—is not out of the question. Such a movement need not encompass the entire country to be effective. Demonstrations in the capital, like past displays of “people power” in Cairo, Kiev, and Manila, can effect regime change.
A coup d’état is another possibility. The siloviki, like all Praetorian guards, are a mixed blessing. They can keep him in power by crushing political opposition, but they can also stage a coup should they conclude that Putin’s policies are undermining their own security and wealth. Putin knows that he replaced Boris Yeltsin (and that Leonid Brezhnev replaced Nikita Khrushchev) in just this fashion.
Even if Putin is not ousted by popular revolution or by a coup, he will be crippled by unrest in Russia’s non-Russian regions. Much of the North Caucasus, for example, has already spun out of Moscow’s control, as the recent terrorist attacks in Chechnya and the continued violence in Ingushetia and Dagestan demonstrate. As the regime visibly decays and Putin loses his sheen, militant non-Russians may emulate Putin’s invocation of Russians’ right to self-determination in southeastern Ukraine and pursue their own separatist agendas—with mass protests when possible, and violence when necessary. The Crimean Tatars, whose frustration with increasingly oppressive Russian rule in their homeland is growing, could be the first to act out violently. The Volga Tatars and Bashkirs, both of whom have large reserves of oil in their regions, could easily follow, as they did in the 1990s, with demands for greater autonomy or independence.
Will Russia and the world be better off without Putin? Yes, but only if Putin’s successor ends the war and comes to a rapprochement with the West.
Putin’s successor, whenever he takes power, is likely to be a hardliner; even so, his first priority will have to be to clean the mess created by Putin. Chances are that the new president will be more inclined to end the war and more likely to adopt a conciliatory tone vis-à-vis the rest of the world.
If Putin’s successor is not a hardliner, those chances will be even better. This is a small but real possibility: Russia’s democrats might just be able to take control of the country at a time of chaos and instability, especially if they succeed in forging coalitions with the increasingly disgruntled Russians whose sons are dying in Ukraine and with non-Russian minorities, as Boris Yeltsin did in the waning days of the Soviet Union. Besides, if history is any indication, Russia’s next leader is anybody’s guess. The awful Lenin was succeeded by the dreadful Stalin, but Stalin was followed by the decent Khrushchev, who was replaced by the worse Brezhnev, who was succeeded by the good Gorbachev. And Gorbachev handed over power to the pretty good Yeltsin, who was ousted by the dreadful Putin.
In the meantime, the West should do all it can now to support Ukraine and encourage Putin to deescalate the war. The West can also limit the fallout from a possible regime collapse by supporting Russia’s neighbors—especially Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine—economically, diplomatically, and militarily. When the rotten Russian dam breaks, as it inevitably will, only strong and stable non-Russian states will be able to contain the flooding, shielding the rest of the world from Putin’s disastrous legacy of ruin.