February 17, 2023

The Russia Stability Tracker

February 2023

By Andrea Kendall-Taylor

One year into Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine, it is evident that the Kremlin’s military capabilities have fallen far short of Putin’s political ambitions, raising questions about how the war is affecting the Russian leader’s hold on power. After the Ukrainian military’s successful defense of Kyiv, Putin was forced to withdraw his forces and redeploy them in pursuit of (temporarily) lesser objectives in Ukraine’s east and south. Even then, the Ukrainian military continued taking back territory, calling into question the Russian military’s ability to control the land that Putin had illegally and farcically claimed for Russia. The Russian military’s poor performance, botched mobilization, mounting casualties, economic challenges resulting from the sanctions and export controls, and increasingly visible elite fissures have raised questions about political stability inside Russia.

This assessment examines how the war is affecting Putin’s hold on power one year since his invasion of Ukraine. This assessment focuses specifically on Putin’s hold on power and not that of the wider regime; it is plausible that Putin could leave power and be replaced by a regime insider, allowing the same regime to persist past his exit. Who replaces Putin and what comes next will be shaped by how he exits office. But the very fact of his departure will raise hard questions for the United States and Europe about how to engage with a post-Putin Russia. It therefore remains important to monitor his hold on power and provide policymakers with advance warning if the risk of his ouster rises.

To gauge how the war is affecting Putin’s hold on power, the Center for a New American Security convened a group of leading experts on Putin’s Russia and authoritarianism under the auspices of the Transatlantic Forum on Russia. The experts identified the factors most critical to Putin’s stability, how those factors have changed in the aftermath of Putin’s invasion, and their impact on regime stability. The group will regularly update their assessments of these factors, providing insight into how dynamics are changing. Although it is all but impossible to predict the exact timing of the downfall of any authoritarian leader, this assessment provides a qualitative evaluation of the risk. This assessment presents the Russian stability tracker—the pillars of Putin’s support and a summary of how those factors have changed since the start of the war. The tracker provides a framework for highlighting changes in the risk of Putin’s departure from office. The tracker is followed by an overarching assessment of Putin’s stability by each of the group’s experts. Overall, the experts agreed that while Putin’s political prospects have been complicated by the war, he is poised to maintain power in the near term.

Assessing the Changes in Putin’s Pillars of Stability

Absence of an Alternative to Putin

The absence of an alternative to Putin remains the most important pillar of his stability in office. Even if the elite or public were dissatisfied with Putin, there is no center of gravity around which they could coalesce. The regime elite can’t defect if there is nowhere to defect to.

Yevgeny Prigozhin (founder of the Wagner mercenary group) and Ramzan Kadyrov (head of the Chechen Republic) have sought to raise their profiles and influence, but they do not have the backing of the elite and are publicly unpopular. Other possibilities include Sergei Kiriyenko or Mikhail Mishustin, who could serve as consensus figures to replace Putin in a coordinated challenge or a Putin health crisis. It may be difficult from the outside to see alternatives forming, given the inherent risks in showing one’s hand.

Cohesive Political and Economic Elite

There have always been factions and elite infighting in Russia, with Putin arbitrating between them. In this way, elite divisions facilitate a myth of Putin as the necessary arbiter between these factions and central to the stability of the political system. The war in Ukraine has exacerbated these fissures, as some elites question whether Putin is taking Russia in the right direction and whether he has the staying power to be the one best positioned to protect their future interests.

Elite fissures have become more visible—namely, Prigozhin and Kadyrov have been critical of the Kremlin’s war effort, especially that of the Ministry of Defense (MoD). However, the experts were divided over how significant these divisions are. On the one hand, the fact that the divisions have spilled into the public domain may signal that the regime is less willing to or capable of cracking down on opposition, increasing their willingness to challenge the regime in the future. On the other hand, no inner-circle elites have lost their jobs, suggesting that the core remains strong. Moreover, any coordination against Putin is potentially extremely costly, creating tremendous barriers to organization against the regime.

Control over Information Environment

The Kremlin has largely increased its control over Russia’s media environment. The regime’s crackdown on journalists and independent media outlets, and its moves to silence anti-regime narratives, have strengthened the regime’s control. While many Russians use virtual private networks (VPNs) to bypass these restrictions, the government is taking steps to limit access to VPNs. Most Russians, therefore, still receive their information from state media, in particular, state television. The Kremlin’s control over the information environment ensures that many Russians receive only the Kremlin’s version of the war in Ukraine—a factor that contributes to apparently high Russian support for the war in Ukraine.

In some cases, especially in the realm of war bloggers, there have been voices critical of Moscow’s war effort. Frequently, however, critical voices often deflect blame away from Putin himself. The regime appears aware of the risks that pro-war bloggers and other critics pose and is taking steps to rein them in. The regime also appears to retain the capacity to co-opt radical voices.

Economic Well-Being

Russia’s economy is worse off because of its invasion of Ukraine and the resulting sanctions and export controls designed to constrain the Russian military and government’s ability to sustain the war. The contracting economy will heighten elite divisions as they fight over shrinking pieces of the economic pie. Indeed, personalist autocracies like Putin’s Russia are the most sensitive to economic downturns. For now, however, the elite understand that they can hang together or hang separately—meaning they recognize that destabilizing actions risk bringing down the regime they benefit from.

The Russian public will also grow more discontented as a result of deteriorating economic conditions, creating fertile fodder for future challenges to the regime should a catalyst emerge. The government’s imperative to sustain the war means it will likely insulate (if not increase) defense spending at the expense of public expenditure, further hurting average Russians. Poor economic conditions on their own, however, are unlikely to destabilize Putin, and numerous autocrats have shown that they can muddle through poor economic conditions for prolonged periods.

Exit of the Most Discontented

Even before the war, Russia suffered from significant brain drain. Russia’s invasion accelerated the departure of the most politically active Russians—those who may have been willing to challenge the regime. By some estimates, somewhere near 200,000 Russians left the country in the immediate aftermath of the invasion. After Putin’s announcement of “partial mobilization” in September 2022, up to 300,000 more people are estimated to have left Russia within a single week. The exodus of these Russians provides a pressure release valve for the regime, as there are now few remaining Russians who would be willing to catalyze and organize opposition to the regime.

Historically Apolitical Military

Before the war in Ukraine, there was an extremely low risk that the military would intervene in the political system. That risk remains low, although Prigozhin’s success on the battlefield (relative to Russia’s armed forces) could raise concerns in the MoD that Prigozhin’s Wagner Group stands to increase its influence and access to government resources at the MoD’s expense. Research shows that military perceptions of government actions that threaten to undermine military equities raise a country’s coup risk. This dynamic may have shaped Putin’s decision to demote General Sergei Surovikin and appoint General Valery Gerasimov—a move many saw as Putin siding with Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu and Gerasimov in their confrontation with Prigozhin and Kadyrov. The long-standing loyalty of Shoigu and Gerasimov, however, underscores that the military’s threat to Putin remains very low.

Loyal Security Services

The security services continue to appear loyal to Putin and the regime; there have been no visible signs of defection. The maintenance of this perception itself is important—if people perceive the security services as loyal, it lowers their propensity to challenge the regime because they expect the security services to respond robustly. There were some signs of disapproval of the war among Putin’s National Guard early in 2022—more than 100 national guardsmen were fired for refusing to fight in Ukraine. There have not been other visible signs of dissatisfaction that the experts are aware of. If anything, the security services may have increased their influence, as Putin relies more heavily on them to repress society.

Putin’s Popularity

Although Putin does not stand in genuinely competitive elections, the popularity of autocrats matters, because strong popularity serves as a signal to elite challengers that any effort to oppose the leader is futile. Members of the elite will be less willing to challenge a leader who appears popular. So far, Putin maintains public support, although there are serious challenges to gauging citizens’ true preferences about a leader in such a repressive environment. Polling from Levada showed Putin’s public approval at 81 percent in December 2022. Public approval for Putin is likely in part a product of the lack of a viable alternative to him, and if one emerged, public support could quickly shift.


The Kremlin has come to rely increasingly on repression to maintain its hold on power. The trend toward greater repression pre-dates Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine. The Kremlin had already increased its crackdown on all facets of Russian civil society in the run-up to parliamentary elections in September 2021. But since the invasion, the regime’s reliance on repression has grown, and there are no visible signs that members of the security services or elite are questioning that repression is an appropriate and useful means to maintain control. In fact, the Kremlin increased spending on internal security—an indicator of both concern with unrest and its willingness to increase repressive capacity to manage it. The Ministry of Internal Affairs staff is set to increase by 40,000 people by 2025, after staying the same for eight years.

Research shows that repression is helpful to the durability of an autocracy. However, it does create broad discontent that can be more readily converted into protests. Unanticipated triggers—outrage over wartime casualties, the downfall of the Iranian regime, the blundering of a second round of mobilization—could catalyze protests, especially if multiple crises converged.

Russia as a Besieged Fortress

Putin has always invoked fear of the collective West to portray himself as uniquely qualified to protect Russia and justify repression. The war has allowed Putin to double down on portraying Russia as under siege from the United States and NATO. Putin and state-controlled media outlets portray the war in Ukraine as being about far more than Ukraine and push the idea that the West seeks to break up Russia.

Expert Assessments

Based on these dynamics, the experts agreed that while Putin’s risk of losing power has risen, he remains poised to retain power in the near term. Overall, the experts assess that:

Putin’s odds of experiencing an ouster have risen, but he appears secure for now.

Putin’s decision to wage war with Ukraine certainly elevated his risk of overthrow, in that the baseline odds of his ouster are higher than they would have been otherwise. That said, the chance of Putin leaving power has declined considerably since early 2022, when there was substantial uncertainty with respect to how key players would react to the war and Russia’s international fallout. Since then, the security apparatus clearly demonstrated its loyalty to Putin (having responded to initial protests with a heavy hand), elite discontent did not cascade (as it could have) to a critical mass, and ordinary Russians have (at least publicly) acquiesced to the war, even after the mobilization announcement. Now, a political equilibrium appears to have re-emerged, and Putin’s rule looks secure. While dramatic changes can always occur in authoritarian environments, even those that seem stable, the odds of Putin continuing to rule Russia in the years to come are high.

— Erica Frantz | Associate Professor, Michigan State University

There may always be unpredictable, transformative events that dramatically change the trajectory, but so far, the Russian regime has been holding its grip pretty well. It was able to absorb the shocks of the launching of the war, of the mobilization, and of several military defeats and humiliations (the loss of Kherson just after having annexed it), without too much turmoil. Open dissidence from the elite has been more than limited, and the Russian society put itself into a defensive consolidation mode that allows the regime to continue its trajectory. Putin may be seen as hesitant, ineffective, too radical, or not radical enough, but it doesn’t appear as though he is personally challenged either. This confirms the regime’s high adaptability and ad hoc functioning, even in rapidly changing and deteriorating conditions.

— Marlene Laruelle | Director and Research Professor, Institute for European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies, George Washington University

Vladimir Putin’s position is considerably less stable than it was before February 24, 2022, for two basic reasons: his rule was extremely secure prior to the war, and the war is a massive blunder that has harmed the interests of many Russian elites and the vast majority of the Russian population. That said, it is hard to imagine a plausible scenario by which Putin is overthrown in the near term. He and his close associates have firm control over state coercive institutions, economic rents, and the media space. The carefully cultivated perception that there is “no alternative” to Putin makes it even harder to imagine a plausible challenge to his rule. Absent a massive economic or military collapse in 2023, Putin’s hold on power still seems solid, despite his catastrophic decision for war.

— Brian Taylor | Professor, Syracuse University

Rather than losing power, Putin may emerge a weaker strongman …

The odds of Putin losing office are greater than they have been at any point since he became president in 2000 but remain relatively low because of the difficulty of removing personalist autocrats who have held power for many years. Of course, coups and mass mobilizations are inherently difficult to predict because regime loyalty is private information held tightly by pro-regime elites and the mass public alike, but we have not yet seen signs of the emergence of alternative sites of power, elite coordination, or levels of popular discontent that might portend a challenge to Putin’s rule. Nor has Russia’s performance on the battlefield been so disastrous as to lead to conditions for a move against Putin as president. This may occur but has not yet happened. In some respects, the war, even with Russia’s poor performance, makes challenging Putin more difficult because he can wrap himself in the flag. The postwar period may be another story. A more likely scenario in the short run is that Putin becomes a “weaker strongman” who fends off challengers and remains in office but is unable to pursue a positive agenda, is less able to manage elite conflict, and relies more heavily on repression and censorship to stay in power.

— Tim Frye | Professor, Columbia University

Research suggests a number of factors are associated with higher odds of leader turnover in an authoritarian regime: a lower growth rate, military defeat, greater political freedom, the leader’s age, a short tenure in office (the risk of overthrow is greatest early on), and the fall of other dictators around the world (maybe). Of course, the relationship is complex, and none of these factors has a very large influence. Even losing a war only reduces the dictator’s survival odds to about 50 percent.6 Russia’s stagnant economy, Putin’s advancing age, and the prospect of military defeat all suggest higher—and perhaps increasing—odds of overthrow. But his long experience in office and the increasingly repressive political environment he is creating push in the other direction. The negative scenario most plausible is one of meltdown of the regime, as multiple crises interact and overpower the Kremlin’s ability to make critical decisions. For Putin to leave office, he and those around him will probably have to believe that such a course is less risky than staying put.

— Daniel Treisman | Professor, UCLA

… and the risk of his ouster would rise given a clear military defeat, creating strong incentive to perpetuate the war and avoid any reckoning.

Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and the dynamics it has created—economic challenges, the amplification of elite fissures, questions about whether Putin is taking Russia in the right direction or whether he will be the one best suited to protect the elites’ future interests—have all raised the underlying risk of his ouster (although that risk remains low). Research shows that leaders who initiate wars are rarely ousted while the war is ongoing.7 Russia’s elite appear to recognize that any effort to challenge Putin would risk destabilizing the system—a development that could cost them their access to the perks of power—so they prefer to remain loyal, even if those perks are shrinking. Research underscores this dynamic, showing that the longer an autocrat is in power, the less likely he is to be removed at the hands of insiders.8 Meanwhile, repression is effectively tamping down the risk of protest. For now, then, Putin appears secure. But should the war end in a Russian defeat, research suggests that the risk of his ouster rises. That is why Putin has little interest in ending the war.

— Andrea Kendall-Taylor | Senior Fellow and Director, Transatlantic Security, Center for a New American Security

Putin’s position is less stable than it was a year ago, largely because the war with Ukraine is not going well for Russia. Criticism of the Russian military’s performance from hawkish officials, led by Wagner chief Prigozhin, indicates serious fissures among the elite. Putin’s recent demotion of Surovikin and appointment of Gerasimov in his place to take charge of operations in Ukraine also suggests increasing rivalries among the top military brass. Public opinion remains largely favorable to the war, and Putin’s own position has not been publicly challenged. But if Russia is not able to retake territory from the Ukrainians, there will be increasing questioning of Putin’s competence as a leader.

— Angela Stent | Director of the Center for Eurasian, Russian & East European Studies, Georgetown University

While Putin’s position is less secure than it was a year ago, he has taken steps to maintain and consolidate his rule. Initial protests, while never a real threat, were quickly suppressed, and though the oligarchs may grumble privately, their fortunes are now more deeply tied to Putin than before. Rivalries among entrepreneurs of violence (e.g., MoD vs. Wagner) may seem like signs of weakening regime consensus, but this fragmentation also serves to make Putin more indispensable as the ultimate arbiter of inter-elite disputes. Putin is continuing to prioritize loyalty over competence (e.g., in his replacement of Surovikin with Gerasimov), which means prioritizing his own regime stability even over a military victory in Ukraine. The big mystery, and one that adds a huge element of unpredictability to these forecasts, is how much he can maintain the former without achieving the latter.

— Seva Gunitsky | Associate Professor, University of Toronto

CNAS and this group of experts will update this assessment in April 2023.

About the Author

Dr. Andrea Kendall-Taylor is a Senior Fellow and Director of the Transatlantic Security Program at CNAS. She previously served as Deputy National Intelligence Officer for Russia and Eurasia at the National Intelligence Council and as a senior intelligence officer at the CIA.

About the Transatlantic Security Program

The mission of the Transatlantic Security Program is to strengthen transatlantic relations and help decision makers understand, anticipate, and respond to challenges in Europe and Russia. Key among these challenges are the rise of China, a revisionist Russia, threats to democracy, and other changes in Europe’s security landscape that will require NATO to adapt. The Transatlantic Security Program addresses these issues by working closely with our network of current and former U.S. and European government officials, private sector partners, and academic experts to translate cutting-edge research into policy solutions. We foster high-level U.S.-European dialogue, convene seminars and public forums, and engage with media and citizens to shape the context in which policies are made.


This report was made possible with the generous support of the Bertelsmann Foundation, BP America, Canadian Department of National Defense, Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Embassy of the Federal Republic of Germany, Embassy of the Republic of Finland, Estonian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Estonian Ministry of Defence, Finnish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Latvian Ministry of Defense, Ministry of National Defence of the Republic of Lithuania, Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and Royal Norwegian Ministry of Defence.

As a research and policy institution committed to the highest standards of organizational, intellectual, and personal integrity, CNAS maintains strict intellectual independence and sole editorial direction and control over its ideas, projects, publications, events, and other research activities. CNAS does not take institutional positions on policy issues, and the content of CNAS publications reflects the views of their authors alone. In keeping with its mission and values, CNAS does not engage in lobbying activity and complies fully with all applicable federal, state, and local laws. CNAS will not engage in any representational activities or advocacy on behalf of any entities or interests and, to the extent that the Center accepts funding from non-U.S. sources, its activities will be limited to bona fide scholastic, academic, and research-related activities, consistent with applicable federal law. The Center publicly acknowledges on its website annually all donors who contribute.

The Transatlantic Forum on Russia is dedicated to facilitating dialogue between experts from the United States and Europe on Russia-related issues. The Forum’s aim is to share assessments that allow the United States and Europe to reevaluate the evolving nature of the Russia challenge given the significant changes in the security environment in Europe and the impact of the war in Ukraine on Russia itself, and to map out a revised transatlantic strategy for confronting Russia.

  1. Aaron Belkin and Evan Schofer, “Toward a Structural Understanding of Coup Risk,” Journal of Conflict Resolution 47, no. 5 (October 2003): 594–620, https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/0022002703258197.
  2. “From Opinion to Understanding,” Levada Center, accessed January 31, 2023, https://www.levada.ru/en/ratings.
  3. Andrea Kendall-Taylor and Maria Snegovaya, “Supporting Russian Civil Society: A Report of the Transatlantic Forum on Russia,” Center for a New American Security, December 1, 2022, https://www.cnas.org/publications/reports/supporting-russian-civil-society.
  4. TASS, “Shtatnaya chislenost MVD ke 2025 godu viractet pochti da 940 tes. Chelovek [‘The staff of the Ministry of Internal Affairs will grow to almost 940 thousand people by 2025’],” December 5, 2022, https://tass.ru/politika/16509211; President of the Russian Federation, “Ob ustanovlenii pryedelnoy shtatnoy chislennosti organov vnutrennich dyel Rossiskoy Fyederatsi [‘On the establishment of the maximum staffing of the internal affairs bodies of the Russian Federation’],” Decree No. 878, December 5, 2022, http://publication.pravo.gov.ru/Document/View/0001202212050104?index=0&rangeSize=1.
  5. Abel Escribà-Folch, “Repression, Political Threats, and Survival under Autocracy,” International Political Science Review 34, no. 5 (November 2013): 543–60, https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/0192512113488259.
  6. Giacamo Chiozza and H.E. Goemans, Leaders and International Conflict, Cambridge University Press, 2011.
  7. Chiozza and Goemans, Leaders and International Conflict.
  8. Andrea Kendall-Taylor and Erica Frantz, “After Putin: Lessons from Autocratic Leadership Transitions,” Washington Quarterly 45, no. 1 (April 2022): 79-96, https://doi.org/10.1080/0163660X.2022.2057112; Milan W. Svolik, The Politics of Authoritarian Rule, Cambridge University Press, 2012.


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