November 08, 2023

The Russia Stability Tracker

November 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 updates the key pillars of Putin’s stability identified and analyzed in the February 2023 and June 2023 reports and takes into account how events over the last four months have impacted each of these pillars.

The group’s experts did not predict Wagner Head Yevgeny Prigozhin’s failed mutiny in late June 2023. Although the group highlighted his very public and personal criticisms of Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and General Valery Gerasimov and the tensions that this created within the system, the group did not anticipate the timing or brazenness of Prigozhin’s challenge. Since the failed mutiny, Russian President Putin and the Kremlin have moved to reassert control, including by likely orchestrating Prigozhin’s death in a plane crash in August. The experts generally agreed that for now, there are no immediate threats to Putin’s hold on power, although the failed mutiny creates greater uncertainty about the long-term stability of the regime. The tracker is followed by an overarching assessment of Putin’s stability by some 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 | Still Eroding Stability
Control over Information Environment
No Change | Supporting Stability
Economic Well-being
No Change | Eroding Stability
Exit of the Most Discontented
Weakening | Still Supporting Stability
Historically Apolitical Military
No Change | Supporting Stability
Loyal Security Services
No Change | Supporting Stability
Putin’s Popularity
No Change | Supporting Stability
Repression
Weakening | Still Supporting Stability
Russia as a Besieged Fortress
No Change | Supporting Stability

Assessing the Changes in Putin’s Pillars of Stability

No Change | Supporting Stability

The absence of an alternative to Putin remains among the most critical pillars of regime stability. Wagner head Yevgeny Prigozhin was a political outsider, albeit with access to weapons. Although he had some populist appeal to disenchanted Russians, he lacked support among the political elite and was never widely considered a viable alternative to Putin. Moreover, the Kremlin’s likely assassination of Prigozhin in a plane crash in August not only removed a major irritant to the Kremlin, but it sent a chilling message to would-be challengers. Anyone challenging Putin must be confident in their success, or they will face a similarly nasty demise.

Expert Assessments

Based on the above dynamics, the experts agreed that:

Despite the high drama of Prigozhin’s failed mutiny and his subsequent death, there are few apparent risks to Putin’s hold on power ...

The June 2023 Wagner mutiny was the closest Russia had come to an armed struggle for power near the capital since the early 1990s. Key parts of the military and security apparatus seemed paralyzed during the mutiny. And yet, Russian political life has seemingly moved on as if nothing happened. This can partly be explained by Prigozhin’s subsequent murder, interpreted by most people as a realization of Putin’s previously stated assertion that he “shows no mercy” to traitors. Even more important in understanding the reaction to the Wagner mutiny is the recognition that Prigozhin had a unique status among the elite—although he was not in Putin’s inner circle, he had clear connections to Putin and controlled media and financial resources and, most importantly, his own quasi-private army, the Wagner Group. With Prigozhin’s death, the only figure among the elite who is remotely comparable is Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov. Kadyrov’s health thus bears watching. Despite the seeming paralysis in the power ministries during the mutiny, the heads of Russia’s military and security structures are all Putin loyalists, and most of them have been in these positions for many years. The memory of the perceived vulnerability of the regime won’t go away, but unless there’s some other major unexpected shock to the system, there is no reason to think this represents a source of instability for Putin at this time.

— Brian Taylor | Professor, Syracuse University

Put simply, the result of the Prigozhin affair in summer 2023 was the elimination of a potential rival to Putin. In the long term, this means greater uncertainty regarding the future of Russia and who will lead it, but in the short term, it means greater consolidation of control for Putin. Prigozhin’s mutiny in late July was both a huge surprise for much of the world and a huge embarrassment for Putin. For a moment, it seemed possible that Putin’s grip on power could unravel. Perhaps just as quickly, however, Prigozhin backed down, Putin reasserted control, and eventually Prigozhin was assassinated. Such episodes of extreme uncertainty—where suddenly the impossible seems possible—vary in form in authoritarian regimes, but they do occasionally transpire. In rare instances, regimes succumb to the challenge, as did Ben Ali’s in Tunisia in 2011. More often, however, they withstand it—as did Erdoğan of Turkey following the failed coup in 2016 and Maduro of Venezuela following the 2018 presidential crisis. And the result is the sidelining or silencing of key challengers to their rule. As such, though the egos of such leaders may be bruised, they typically emerge with greater political control, not less.

— Erica Frantz | Associate Professor, Michigan State University

At the end of June, it appeared that the Putin system might be seriously challenged. Wagner’s Yevgeny Prigozhin mounted a mutiny and appeared to have considerable support—including from General Surovikin—when he took over the Rostov base and began to march toward Moscow. Putin appeared briefly on television, looking angry and uncertain of himself. For 24 hours, the world wondered whether a civil war might break out. But Prigozhin turned back because he was apparently not sure what would happen when he and his troops arrived in Moscow. In the following weeks, Putin was able to reassert his leadership, Prigozhin was eventually killed, and Defense Minister Shoigu and Chief of General Staff Gerasimov remained in office. Without any alternative, Putin’s grip on power appears strong. He has used the war with Ukraine to strengthen his position and convince those Russians who remain in Russia that there is no alternative to victory and that Russia will win. The average Russian has not felt the economic pinch from sanctions, and Russia is still earning billions of dollars from hydrocarbon sales. Repression has increased, but Putin’s popularity remains high. As he prepares for his election campaign in 2024, he will be unchallenged and will undoubtedly win by a wide margin.

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

… but in the longer term, challenges—especially those stemming from Putin’s war in Ukraine—remain.

President Putin’s political position remains stable. The major political development since our June assesment was Yevgeny’s Prigozhin’s “coutiny”—more than a mutiny in that Prigozhin’s men killed fellow Russian soldiers in their so-called “March for Justice,” but less than a coup in that Prigozhin did not directly call for Putin’s removal and pulled up stakes short of Moscow. We do not know much about the political consequences of failed coups and mutinies. One extensive review of the academic literature finds few robust relationships but notes that coups breed coups, though mostly in military dictatorships. High country income and wealth discourage coups, while political instability and violence encourage them. These factors all suggest a coup in the classic sense is unlikely in the near term. Moreover, the ease with which Prigozhin was dispatched would be an added deterrent to a potential coup-plotter. At the same time, Prigozhin’s “coutiny” is a reminder that political threats in autocracies often emerge unpredictably, and political change often occurs in a nonlinear fashion in these settings. As assessed in the June update, events on the ground in Ukraine remain likely to provide the greatest relative threat to President Putin’s position, although personalist autocrats often stay in power after military defeats, so the risk of losing power via this channel remains low in absolute terms. While military setbacks on their own might not threaten Putin, they may be more dangerous when combined with other potential problems (e.g., economic hardship at home; visible social costs resulting from the sanctions, such as the grounding of passenger planes for lack of parts; or obvious failures of governance). One looming issue is the continuation of U.S. military aid to Ukraine. Signaling that military aid from the U.S. will cease or decline dramatically would likely embolden Putin, strengthen war supporters in Russia, and further reduce the threat of Putin losing power.

— Tim Frye | Professor, Columbia University

I don’t see significant change in underlying structural variables. In a more speculative vein, I have thought for some time that change is most likely to come about—if at all—through progressive degeneration of the Kremlin’s managerial and decision-making capacity as mini-crises and challenges proliferate, and as perceived weakness at the center causes lower-level agents to default to corruption and inaction. At some point, such erosion could trigger a serious crisis. Pressure is gradually rising. Although Russian defenses have held back the Ukrainian counteroffensive, some problems have grown more acute. As Ukraine strikes within Crimea, many ships from the Black Sea Fleet have been withdrawn from Sevastopol. There are signs of increasing unease at home about conscription—the number of Yandex searches for “when will the mobilized return” has increased significantly. Key decisions will be made over the next month about strategy in the 2024 presidential election. The Kremlin has reportedly ordered polls asking respondents whether Putin’s resignation would “improve, worsen, or not change the situation in the country” and whether someone else could “replace Putin as president.” Putin’s announcement of his candidacy for president in late 2011 prompted a wave of discontent, followed by mass demonstrations in 2011–2012. The Kremlin seems at least concerned about such a possibility now. None of this suggests imminent danger to the regime, but the risk of serious mistakes is rising.

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

After Prigozhin’s brief but spectacular “mutiny,” Putin appears to have retaken the reins of power and looks to be settling in for a prolonged national mobilization. Yet he is now presiding over an increasingly unpredictable regime, one that is slowly but inevitably approaching the end of its life and appears increasingly vulnerable to domestic and external pressures. Putin’s reliance on a small circle of loyalists has created a governance structure that is resistant to adaptation, and this calcification is especially dangerous given the institutional deficiencies and systemic corruption in which the regime operates. Though he still commands the support of the coercive apparatus and faces no immediate threats, regime uncertainty has increased, and Putin appears less indispensable than he did a year ago.

— Seva Gunitsky | Associate Professor, University of Toronto

The key word here, I think, is “apparent.” We could see Prigozhin’s uprising coming and the fissures that generated it, and we could see the knots into which the Kremlin had to tie itself to get through the last several months of Russian politics. Depending on your point of view, you can arrive at the conclusion that the outcome of the Prigozhin affair indicates the Kremlin’s flexibility and thus its strength, or you could arrive at the conclusion that it indicates the Kremlin’s vulnerability and shrinking room for maneuver. The evidence for each of these opposing conclusions is, in my view at least, equally strong, and so we are left not really knowing whether the Kremlin is stronger or weaker as a result. The silver lining, however, is that the Russian elite are likely equally flummoxed and will continue to reevaluate their sense of Putin’s strength on a situational and a contextual basis, responding to emerging political challenges only hesitantly and with hedged bets, thus making it difficult for the Kremlin to rely on proactive loyalty. If I had to put my finger on one key challenge to the regime, that would be it.

— Sam Greene | Director of Democratic Resilience, Center for European Policy Analysis

Putin’s likely assassination of Prigozhin sent a clear reminder to other would-be challengers that the bar is high for displacing Putin. Even if Prigozhin did not intend to directly challenge Putin, the regime’s response demonstrates zero tolerance for public displays of disloyalty. Although it appears Prigozhin had some sympathy for his cause from the inside, it was not nearly enough to trigger a cascade of support away from Putin. Always wanting to remain on the winning side, the political and security sector elite will, for now, remain loyal to Putin. But their apparent lack of enthusiasm for Putin suggests they will continue to monitor the political winds to gauge any change in their direction. Now the question becomes whether Putin’s efforts to sustain the stability of the regime will prove effective or unintentionally precipitate new challenges. For example, the militarization of Russian society, including the allowance to regional governors to create their own private military companies and the granting to Rosgvardia (the National Guard) the ability to access heavy weapons, could raise the risk of a more violent and chaotic transition later. As the failed mutiny underscored, things look stable, until suddenly they are not.

— 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...

  • Reports
    • May 3, 2024
    The Role of AI in Russia’s Confrontation with the West

    Executive Summary Russian thinking about artificial intelligence (AI) development is consistent with that of other major powers that are seeking to respond to an evolving comb...

    By Samuel Bendett

  • Commentary
    • Foreign Affairs
    • April 23, 2024
    The Axis of Upheaval

    The West has been too quick to dismiss the coordination among China, Iran, North Korea, and Russia....

    By Andrea Kendall-Taylor & Richard Fontaine

  • Podcast
    • April 19, 2024
    The State of the War in Ukraine with Michael Kofman

    As the war in Ukraine continues into its third year, the mood has become increasingly dark. While territorial changes continue to be minor, Russia’s slow but steady advances a...

    By Andrea Kendall-Taylor, Jim Townsend & Michael Kofman

  • Podcast
    • March 22, 2024
    Putin’s Fifth Term and Russian Domestic Politics

    This past weekend, Russians went to the polls for the country’s presidential election. To the surprise of no one, Vladimir Putin emerged victorious with a record-high 87 perce...

    By Andrea Kendall-Taylor, Jim Townsend, Dr. Angela Stent & Joshua Yaffa

View All Reports View All Articles & Multimedia