April 12, 2022

Will Putin Outlast the War?

In recent weeks, Ukrainian forces have had a string of military victories, Russia has begun to pull back to eastern Ukraine, and Vladimir Putin appears increasingly isolated, with U.S. intelligence reporting that his advisors have not been giving him honest assessments of the war. The evidence of atrocities committed in Bucha and elsewhere will lead to further international isolation of Putin’s regime. This sequence of events has led some Russia watchers to conclude that Putin is getting weaker and his position as Russia’s leader is growing more vulnerable. This is almost certainly wrong—Russia’s autocrat is more secure than most people believe.

Despite the predictions of overly hopeful Russia analysts, the Kremlin’s resilience should not be underestimated.

Still, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine—the worst European war in almost eighty years—represents a dangerous gamble for Putin, his elites, and the population. Those who argue that Putin is unlikely to survive the war say that, even with near-total control of the media, heavy economic sanctions will make it hard for the Kremlin to maintain support for a protracted conflict. Public criticism and opposition to the war will grow, and the elites might eventually fragment, which would open a pathway for Putin’s ouster.

Yet in other cases, botched military adventures yielded no significant changes. For example, Stalin’s losses during the Winter War (1939–40) and failure to conquer Finland did not weaken the Soviet dictator’s grip on power. And Boris Yeltsin, Russia’s first democratic president, won reelection in 1996 despite his dwindling popularity in the aftermath of Russia’s de facto defeat in the first Chechen war (1994–95).

Read the full article from The Journal of Democracy.

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