Putin: The Beginning of the End?

Dictatorships appear to be stable—until they aren't.

The war on Ukraine by Russian President Vladimir Putin has been a watershed moment. Since assuming power in 2000, a number of Western leaders have attempted to cooperate, appease, or negotiate with him. But, by launching a pre-emptive war against a country he believes has no right to exist, Putin has forced the international world to see him for what he is: a belligerent leader with a tremendous capacity for devastation. As a result, extensive new measures aimed at restricting and constraining him have been enacted, including sanctions against Russia's financial institutions, prohibitions on Russian planes flying over EU airspace, and increased arms sales to Ukraine. Even Germany, which had previously been hesitant to face Putin, agreed to block Russian institutions from the SWIFT financial messaging system, changed its long-standing restriction on supplying armaments to conflict zones, and significantly raised its military spending. Russia's invasion of Ukraine has caused a tidal change in international attitudes of Putin and what has to be done to oppose him.

A similar sea change could be taking place within Russia as well. Putin has maintained relatively high levels of public favor during his tenure, owing in large part to his ability to restore economic development and stability following the upheaval of the 1990s. While most Russians have few illusions about their leader, understanding the corruption that enriches him and the elite around him, the prospect of Putin launching a large conventional war against his Ukrainian neighbors remained all but unthinkable to most Russians. Many Russian analysts, commentators, and residents were confident for months that Putin would not commit such an act of aggression. The news of the war and its economic repercussions have changed Russians' perceptions of Putin and Russia; Russia is not the same today as it was last week.

The conventional view holds that Putin will be able to withstand any internal backlash. That is almost certainly correct. In personalist authoritarian regimes, when power is concentrated in the hands of a single individual rather than shared by a party, military junta, or royal family, conflicts seldom force the leader from office, even when they are defeated. This is due to the fact that other elites are not strong enough to hold the dictator accountable, as well as the fact that domestic audiences have limited opportunities to penalize leaders for their acts. But the thing about repressive regimes like Putin's Russia is that they often appear solid until they are not. Putin has taken a significant risk by attacking Ukraine, and there is a chance—one that appears to be growing—that it will be the beginning of the end for him.

RUSSIA FORTRESS

There are compelling grounds to believe that Putin will be able to weather the fallout from his war. In the last year, he has gone to considerable lengths to crack down on Russian civil society, political opposition, journalists, and the information environment. The regime's blatant assassination of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny and the closure of Memorial, the country's most prominent post-Soviet human rights civic institution, demonstrate the regime's willingness to use repression to keep control. The communication has been received by the Russians. According to Levada Center polls in 2021, 52 percent of Russians fear mass persecution, and 58 percent fear being unjustly imprisoned or otherwise injured by the authorities—the highest levels of fear since 1994. Such an increase in repression is normal at the end of the reigns of long-serving autocrats. The longer these authoritarians continue in power, the more disconnected they become from their societies and the less they have to give their subjects. As a result, they have few alternative options for maintaining their power.

Along with repression, Putin has the ability to shape Russia's information environment, influencing how many Russians perceive events in Ukraine. Already, Russia's security forces are harassing those who post antiwar messages on social media and blocking war facts and specifics. The authorities also tried to close Echo Moskvy, a Russian independent radio station that has been broadcasting since 1990. Despite the fact that younger generations receive more information from non-state-controlled sources, the regime maintains its dominance in the information landscape. Polls conducted prior to Russia's invasion of Ukraine show that substantial majority of Russians favoured recognizing the Russian-backed breakaway territories in eastern Ukraine as independent countries, and that they blamed Ukraine and NATO for the conflict.

Repression and information control could work together to keep Russia's anti-war rallies from spreading. So far, the regime has imprisoned almost 5,000 individuals for openly protesting Russia's invasion, which may discourage others from participating. While some Russians may be willing to face arrest if they believe the protests will spread, censorship makes it impossible for potential protestors to know how many individuals are dissatisfied with the conflict. To deal with a more restive Russian populace, the Putin dictatorship will almost certainly increase persecution. Personalist regimes are more inclined than other autocracies to deploy repression in reaction to protests, and they are especially likely to do so when engaged in expansionist territorial wars (as Putin has with Ukraine). Furthermore, many Russians who are fed up with Putin will leave the country, as some have already done, easing the pressure on the regime.

Putin has also gone to considerable efforts to protect himself from a different threat: elite defection. Russia's president ordered each member of his national security council to publicly proclaim their support for his decision to recognize the independence of Donetsk and Luhansk, two rebel territories in eastern Ukraine, in a highly orchestrated meeting. This undermined the council members' credibility in defecting and claiming that Putin is leading Russia astray. Similarly, the day after the campaign against Ukraine began, Putin met his country's most important businesses to discuss the economic shocks that would follow. Putin's purpose was clear: to remind them that their fortunes are inextricably linked to his continued rule.

EVERYTHING FALLS DOWN

However, there are compelling grounds to believe that the tides will turn. Despite the persecution, protests have occurred in over 58 cities across Russia. The early protests are notable not only for the bravery they display, but also for the promise they hold—protests in extremely repressive governments are more likely to succeed than protests in less repressive circumstances. That is because taking to the streets, even if the expenses are significant, sends a strong signal to other residents that their dissent is shared. As a result, these early antiwar actions have the potential to spark a chain reaction of dissent. The fact that Russians regard Putin's war as unjust and atrocious increases the likelihood of a widespread response. Moments of extreme injustice have the greatest capacity to mobilize people, such as when Tunisian fruit vendor Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire after local officials ridiculed him and confiscated his merchandise, kicking off the Arab Spring in 2011.

Domestic opponents of the war are well-known and influential, and they are not merely known dissidents. Several Russian celebrities have signed anti-war letters. Andrei Rublev, a Russian tennis player, scrawled "no war please" on a TV camera. The Russian delegation leader at a key UN climate meeting apologized for his country's invasion of Ukraine, while Putin's press secretary's daughter apparently posted "no war" on her Instagram account. (She erased it some hours afterwards.) There are even indications that Putin's friendly cronies are becoming uneasy. Anatoly Chubais, a former energy magnate, uploaded a photo of Boris Nemtsov, a Russian opposition politician assassinated in front of the Kremlin, on his Facebook page. Oleg Deripaska, a Russian billionaire, has called for peace and discussions.

Even if Putin's actions do not remove him from power right away, the war in Ukraine raises long-term weaknesses. Economic sanctions are already eroding the ruble's value, and the economic harm is projected to worsen. This might hurt Putin domestically over time. When confronted with sanctions, personalist dictatorships often decrease government spending, making life even more difficult for ordinary residents and raising the likelihood of escalating discontent. Sanctions are also more effective when directed towards personalist authoritarian governments rather than other types of autocracies, because personalist dictators are the most reliant on patronage to maintain power. So far, Russia's elite has never had to choose between their desired lifestyle and Putin. However, Chubais and Deripaska's comments suggest that this may alter when the sanctions take effect, especially if they are combined with increased anticorruption activities by the US and Europe. If they are pressed enough, Russia's elites may conclude that Putin cannot guarantee their future interests and attempt to replace him with a leader who will withdraw from Ukraine, prompting the West to unfreeze their assets.

Finally, the conflict in Ukraine could devolve into a protracted insurgency that gradually wears down the Russian people's patience. Personalist dictators, according to research, are more willing than other authoritarians to endure military conflicts with high losses, but that does not mean their populace are. Former Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi, for example, used heavy-handed repression to preserve control of the country as the expenses of his wars rose. However, when confronted with catastrophic economic conditions, common citizens forcibly deposed his government. In the Soviet Union, a protracted and costly invasion of Afghanistan eroded trust in the Communist Party's regime. It is not impossible that Putin's grip on Russia would weaken if Ukraine degenerates into a quagmire.

LOSS OF CONNECTION

Predicting an authoritarian leader's demise is a fool's errand. Weak and vulnerable autocrats can survive considerably longer than pundits anticipate. Former Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe overcame hyperinflation and electoral defeat to remain in power until his death two years ago. Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro remains in office despite the fact that the country's economy has completely collapsed. Similarly, leaders who appear to be in power might be deposed unexpectedly, as was the case with former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in 2011 and Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali the same year.

Analysts do know, however, that personalist leaders like Putin are more likely than other autocrats to make foreign policy mistakes. They surround themselves with yes men who only tell them what they want to hear and keep unfavorable news from them, making it harder for these tyrants to make educated judgments. It remains to be seen whether Putin's war of choice will be the mistake that dethrones him. However, Russia is facing growing public unhappiness, schisms among its elite, and widespread international condemnation. Putin's demise may not occur tomorrow or the next day, but his hold on power is unquestionably weaker than it was before he invaded Ukraine.

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