June 20, 2023

The Russia Stability Tracker

June 2023

In February 2023—one year into Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war on Ukraine—CNAS convened a group of leading U.S. experts on Putin’s Russia and authoritarianism to assess how the war is shaping political stability inside the country. This assessment provides an update to the key pillars of Putin’s stability identified in the February 2023 assessment and takes into account how events over the last three months have impacted each of these pillars. The experts agree that little has happened to change Putin’s hold on power. If anything, the domestic dynamics unfolding because of Putin’s war have shut down pathways through which Russian citizens, the military, and security actors could challenge him. Although a major Russian setback in the war would increase uncertainty about Putin’s survival in office, there are currently no clear threats to his power. The tracker is followed by an overarching assessment of Putin’s stability by each of the group’s experts.

Pillars of Putin’s Stability

Pillars Trending (Change/Effect on Putin's Stability)
Absence of an Alternative to Putin
No Change | Supporting Stability
Cohesive Political and Economic Elite
Weakening | Eroding Stability
Control over Information Environment
No Change | Supporting Stability
Economic Well-Being
Weakening | Eroding Stability
Exit of the Most Discontented
Strengthening | Supporting Stability
Historically Apolitical Military
Weakening | Eroding Stability
Loyal Security Services
Strengthening | Supporting Stability
Putin’s Popularity
No Change | Supporting Stability
Repression
Strengthening | Supporting Stability
Russia as a Besieged Fortress
Strengthening | Supporting Stability

Assessing the Changes in Putin’s Pillars of Stability

No Change | Supporting Stability

There is still no serious alternative to Putin and, if anything, he has used the past 16 months of war to consolidate his power. No one among the inner circle of the elite constitutes a genuine threat. Deputy Chairman of the Security Council and former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has worked to raise his political profile through his hawkish rhetoric, but he does not appear to have gained political influence. Likewise, Yevgeny Prigozhin (founder of the Wagner mercenary group) has worked to maintain his public profile through his regular attacks on the Ministry of Defense, but his constant quarrels do not provide him with a plausible path to power. Some say that Putin talks mainly to Nikolai Patrushev, Igor Sechin, and Medvedev, but none of them are realistic alternatives to Putin at the moment.

Expert Assessments

Based on the above dynamics, the experts agreed that there were few developments that changed Putin’s prospect for political survival and that he appears poised to maintain power for the foreseeable future. Overall, the experts assess that:

Putin has taken actions in recent months that have strengthened, rather than diminished, his hold on power.

There have been few changes overall in terms of the stability of Putin’s rule, but two developments are worth noting. The first is a resurgence of efforts by leaders of armed groups outside the traditional military to vie for greater influence (i.e., Yevgeny Prigozhin and head of the Chechen Republic Ramzan Kadyrov). On the one hand, these actions have the potential to generate discord among the military elite in destabilizing ways. On the other hand, such discord may further stabilize Putin by positioning him as a leader at the helm of various factions seeking to stay in his good favor. The second is the intensification of the repressive environment, with the high-profile arrest of Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich and harsh prison sentencing handed to opposition leader Kara-Murza. These actions send a clear signal that there is no room for challenging Putin’s Russia, or even reporting on it—further protecting Putin’s rule.

— Erica Frantz | Associate Professor, Michigan State University


So far, Putin remains firmly in control. He has tightened his grip on power over the past 15 months by increasing repression and intimidating the population, telling them that there is no alternative to supporting him and no alternative to victory in this war. He invokes the existential threat from NATO and the Soviet victory in the Great Patriotic War to justify the sacrifices Russians are making—and so far, this rhetoric has worked. There are no visible checks on his power and no leader since Joseph Stalin has amassed as much personal power as Putin. Unlike during the Soviet-Afghan war, Russians, by and large, do not protest the deaths of their sons, husbands, and brothers, and there is little popular pressure on him to change course. The previously globalized elite, although they may be privately appalled by what is happening, have largely accepted their fate and adapted to their reduced circumstances. The disincentives to disagree with Putin or to try and leave the country are too great. This situation could continue for the foreseeable future, unless there are major military losses in the next few months and the awaited Ukrainian counteroffensive is more successful than many believe it will be. But Putin has survived military defeats before—and may well do so again.

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

However, several factors could change Putin’s outlook …

The pillars of Russian stability have not meaningfully changed in the last three months. That reflects the relatively stability of the front line in the war. Russia’s winter offensive failed; now everyone is waiting to see when Ukraine’s counteroffensive takes place and how successful it will be. If Ukraine achieves a major breakthrough and retakes significant territory, several of these pillars, such as elite cohesiveness, may shift toward “eroding stability.” A second potential source of change would be if a second major mobilization wave is publicly announced; further mobilization is inevitable, but one suspects the Kremlin will try to implement it more quietly than the September 2022 mobilization. Finally, Yevgeny Prigozhin’s increasingly emotional and confrontational outbursts indicate his position is weakening, not strengthening. Here, the old Kremlinological maxim is apt: When someone goes public with their complaints, it means they are losing the behind-the-scenes power struggle.

— Brian Taylor | Professor, Syracuse University


Putin’s risk of losing power remains low given the inherent difficulty of coordinating an effort to remove him and the continued ability of the government to limit the costs of the war. At the same time, the risk of political instability has increased somewhat in the last three months as Putin’s efforts to double down on the war effort have led to heavy losses of life and few tangible benefits. The increasingly public debates over war strategy and the heightened reliance on repression, are signs that the war effort is not going well. These shortcomings undermine Putin’s image among the elite and the masses as a competent leader and will make it harder to negotiate the difficult tradeoff of keeping both the public and the inner circle satisfied at the same time. Barring a Ukrainian breakthrough on the battlefield, these tradeoffs are manageable in the short term given the government’s loyal repressive apparatus and fiscal reserves but are likely to intensify in the medium to long term given economic headwinds and limited success on the battlefield.

— Tim Frye | Professor, Columbia University


Growing cracks among the elites and a heightening sense of doom about the war continue to put pressure on Putin’s regime. However, the fundamental obstacles to regime change remain in place. Elite dissatisfaction may function as a double-edged sword, exposing divisive regime weaknesses but also highlighting Putin’s importance as arbiter of elite disputes. Yet Putin’s penchant for staying above the fray could make him look increasingly ineffectual or indecisive rather than magisterially neutral. If he is no longer seen as essential to the functioning of the system, change would come swiftly—though the probability of such an outcome remains low.

— Seva Gunitsky | Associate Professor, University of Toronto

… and the outcome of the war in Ukraine is still a critical factor that will shape his political fortune.

The factors that researchers have found to predict instability in authoritarian regimes remain the same—poor economic performance, military defeat, greater political freedom, an older leader, and a trend toward democratization around the world. The values of these variables have not changed significantly since February. If the foreseen Ukrainian spring offensive results in significant gains for Kyiv, that could weaken Putin, although—as noted in the February assessment—even dictators who completely lose wars retain a 50/50 chance of survival. The main dangers to Putin seem to be interacting domestic crises and mistakes by the Kremlin that destabilize the situation. Among such mistakes could be aggressive acts against Western countries or major escalations against Kyiv that increase foreign support to Ukraine or countermeasures against Russia. Placing more explosives in the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant raises the risk of a nuclear disaster. It is impossible to assess Putin’s state of mind, but reports suggest that he remains isolated and the potential for misperception and paranoia is obviously real. These risks cannot be assessed with any confidence, but they probably remain low.

— Daniel Treisman | Professor, University of California, Los Angeles


Being at war improves, rather than weakens, Putin’s prospects for political survival. In research I conducted with Dr. Frantz, we found that since World War II, only 7 percent of personalist authoritarians have been unseated while an interstate conflict that began under their watch was ongoing. Putin’s war is shutting down the pathways through which the country’s citizens, military, and security actors could challenge Putin’s position. A significant military setback in Ukraine, however, would raise the prospect of Putin’s ouster. Although personalist autocrats like Putin are especially resilient in the face of military defeat, Russia’s poor military performance would make conditions ever more ripe for political change. Putin could face a perfect storm heading into 2024: a worsening military outlook in Ukraine, greater economic hardship, and elections scheduled for March that year. It is rarely a single factor that destabilizes entrenched authoritarian regimes. But Putin is likely to face a confluence of factors heading into next year that could ultimately upset the apple cart.

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

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.

Acknowledgments

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.

Author

  • Andrea Kendall-Taylor

    Senior Fellow and Director, Transatlantic Security Program

    Andrea Kendall-Taylor is a Senior Fellow and Director of the Transatlantic Security Program at CNAS. She works on national security challenges facing the United States and Eur...

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