Can Russian President Vladimir Putin lose the war in Ukraine and retain power? As Ukraine’s driving counteroffensive erodes Russia’s position on the battlefield, that question is getting increasing attention. Discussion has focused on the possibility of a coup, whether an armed insurrection by disgruntled Russian generals or a mutiny by Kremlin insiders. Although not impossible, neither of these is currently very likely. In fact, a different danger is more plausible: a comprehensive meltdown of the regime, as multiple challenges overwhelm its capacity to react and dysfunction drains confidence in Putin’s leadership.

NO COUP FOR YOU

Losing a war is rarely a smart career move. History is littered with dictators who launched what they thought would be short, victorious offensives only to be swept from power as their troops floundered. Examples include France’s Napoleon III, who rashly took on Otto von Bismarck’s Prussia in 1870, and Argentina’s General Leopoldo Galtieri, who challenged “the Iron Lady,” British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, over the Falkland Islands in 1982.

Still, failures at the front do not always doom autocrats. The political scientists Giacomo Chiozza and Hein Goemans analyzed all wars from 1919 to 2003 and found that, although military defeat increased a dictator’s odds of forcible ouster, in just over half of the cases, autocrats survived for at least a year after the war ended, and those who did so became quite secure again. Saddam Hussein tyrannized Iraq for 12 years after his troops were routed in Kuwait in 1991. Few of the Arab leaders who lost their wars against Israel were immediately replaced.

Putin has not lost yet, and Russian troops may still manage to defend some of their territorial gains. But the war has already strained Putin’s relations with some in his entourage. To save face, he deflected blame for his disastrous invasion onto military leaders and the Federal Security Service (FSB) officers who were responsible for infiltrating Ukraine and assessing local opinion. Eight generals have been “fired, reassigned, or otherwise sidelined” since February, and one was reportedly imprisoned.

Meanwhile, hawks such as Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov and Yevgeny Prigozhin (who, among other things, controls a powerful mercenary organization) are apoplectic about the army’s failures, for which they blame Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu. As Ukraine struck back this fall, ultranationalist commentators exploded on the Internet, supposedly pressuring Putin to escalate. Some have suggested a coup by hard-line army and security service professionals could be in the offing.

Yet the obstacles to such a coup are formidable. Putin has rigged the system with numerous tripwires to prevent one. Multiple agencies watch over each other, from the FSB and military intelligence (GRU) to the Federal Guard Service (FSO) and National Guard. The FSB’s military counterintelligence department—the largest within the service—has agents in each army unit, naval station, and air force base. Within the FSB, frequent prosecutions for corruption or treason by the FSB’s own internal security department have engendered a culture of mistrust.

Losing a war is rarely a smart career move.

Whether by accident or design, top enforcers have few informal ties to one another or to other Kremlin insiders. Three scholars recently cataloged such links—related to business, leisure activities, philanthropy, and family relations—among the 100 most influential Russians. They found that FSB Director Alexander Bortnikov had informal ties only to Putin himself. Interior Minister Vladimir Kolokoltsev was even less well connected, with direct links to only Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin. Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev and National Guard Director Viktor Zolotov both had relatively sparse networks. Those with armed men at their command lack the mutual trust to organize a conspiracy, and any attempt to do so would be hard to hide.

As for Kadyrov and Prigozhin, the notion that they can pressure Putin or even stage a coup against him is far-fetched. Both are broadly unpopular and completely dependent on the president for their Kremlin status. Both have few friends—and many enemies—in high places. For either, trying to oust Putin would be suicidal.

Rather than feeling pressure from such nationalists, Putin finds them useful. Their calls to demolish Ukraine’s civilian infrastructure likely match his own inclinations—and their open airing of extreme options helps him gauge the public reaction. By advocating use of tactical nuclear weapons, they add plausibility to Putin’s threats.

At the same time, Putin—always cynical about mercenary motives—knows Prigozhin’s attacks on Shoigu follow a history of personal and business quarrels; Shoigu has canceled valuable state contracts held by Prigozhin’s firms. The hawks influence Putin by reinforcing his own instincts and at times shaping the agenda. But they constitute little threat.

Nor is there any real chance of a coup from relative moderates in the regime. Those still talking to journalists—off the record—are depressed and resentful. They grumble about the lack of consultation and planning while secretly scrambling to get their family members excluded from the draft.

END TIMES

Although a coup is unlikely at this point, Putin’s regime is more vulnerable than ever to another threat: a paralyzing meltdown as accumulating crises overwhelm the Kremlin’s decision-making capacity. The war is exacerbating the system’s internal weaknesses, nudging it in the direction of collapse.

The political command structure Putin built over the past 22 years has two key defects. Often called the “vertical of power,” the decision-making system in the Kremlin is more of a pyramid, with all lines of authority descending from Putin’s office. That means each major issue must ultimately be settled at the top. Of course, Putin does not decide everything himself. He often kicks routine matters down a level to where elite factions bargain—or fight—them out. Russian observers call this “autopilot.” But on high priorities—or when the chieftains can’t agree—Putin jumps in to reimpose “manual control,” often with TV cameras rolling to broadcast his decisiveness.

An overcentralized system can work tolerably in quiet times. The clear lines of command even help in minor crises. But the need for Putin to weigh in personally becomes a serious flaw when problems are complex and fast developing. The center is quickly overwhelmed, which can lead to cascading mistakes. Amid wartime stresses, Putin must simultaneously deal with battlefield reversals, elite conflicts, economic failures, shrinking budget revenues, unrest over mobilization, and labor protests. And this list will only increase. As the burden grows, so does the danger of loss of control.

The second weak point is Putin’s need to continually project strength. Like most modern authoritarian regimes, his relies on an elaborate confidence game: most of the regime’s enforcers are motivated by corruption rather than conviction, but they act out of faith that the system will survive. When that faith fades, the result is not a coup but foot-dragging, inaction, and ultimately desertion. In the 2014 downfall of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, which prompted Putin’s seizure of Crimea, the key moment came when Yanukovych’s security detail simply melted away. As confidence in the boss evaporated, so did his defenders.

Meltdown is certainly not inevitable. But if it happens, how would it play out? As problems intensify, they would likely exacerbate each other. Further battlefield losses would heighten conflict among the Kremlin factions, both in Moscow offices and on the Internet. Protests over mobilization would likely mushroom as conscripts die at the front, potentially merging with demonstrations over wage arrears or layoffs. As local hotspots flare up, governors might improvise, trying to solve problems—their own and those of their regions. Businesses and criminal groups would try to exploit the distraction of law enforcement. All this would drive down Putin’s approval rating, which stood at 79 percent in late October. The Kremlin might ban publication of such ratings, but if so, people would assume that Putin’s support had fallen even further.

The timing of authoritarian meltdowns is impossible to predict with confidence.

Narrow and localized protests are not too difficult to manage. But as they spread, the task gets trickier. Violent repression prompts two contradictory reactions: fear and outrage. The one that dominates determines whether the protests grow or dissipate. That, in turn, depends on the level of violence and the context. Too much force in a given setting can backfire, sparking outrage that overwhelms fear. The Haitian dictator Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier learned this the hard way when his police shot three unarmed students in 1985. An explosion of anger drove him out within months. But failing to repress can also be risky if people infer weakness. In 1944, a few students at Guatemala’s University of San Carlos demanded the ouster of their deans. The country’s dictator, General Jorge Ubico, paid little attention—until the protests grew into a general strike that forced his resignation.

Judging the appropriate level of force to use requires great skill and local knowledge, and the answer sometimes changes quickly. The effectiveness of intimidation also depends on whether it is combined with concessions. But concessions can also invite further demands—or, if considered inadequate, further inflame the situation. And concessions, like repression, can come too late.  

Protests matter not because they threaten revolution. Revolutions rarely destabilize modern states with disciplined police forces and sufficient resources. They matter because they can influence opinion within the elite and the security services, changing expectations and sapping morale.

Amid a general draining of confidence in Putin, a coup or revolution might not even be necessary to dislodge him. He might come to see his own safest option as fielding a more presentable candidate in the 2024 presidential election—or even sharing power before then. Of course, such a maneuver might not save the current team. The extent of ballot stuffing required to elect a Kremlin favorite might be too great for a mobilized public to swallow. And the operation could be undermined by competition among the regime’s factions. If none proved strong enough to direct the outcome, the electoral contest might end up—if not fair—at least quite unpredictable.

As with stock market crashes, the timing of authoritarian meltdowns is impossible to predict with confidence. Such regimes may look strong for years, only to vanish suddenly in an avalanche of defections. The multiplying crises and tensions that come with war raise the odds, but the endgame can be triggered by mistakes that have a random quality. Events often seem to speed up right before the collapse, as falling confidence ricochets through the elite. As the Stoic philosopher Seneca put it in another context: “increases are of sluggish growth, but the way to ruin is rapid.” When the end does come, even close observers tend to be surprised.

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