Will Russia Survive Putin?

Russia’s misfortune lies in the fact that its stability is directly dependent on the Putin regime’s stability. If the regime goes, so too, might Russia.

The writing is on the wall. A growing number of serious Russian analysts are coming to the conclusion that Vladimir Putin’s regime is—take your pick—brittle, unstable, weak and/or doomed. A growing number of Russians are also coming to the conclusion that Putin’s regime does not serve their interests and that they would be willing to engage in protests. The Russians may be wrong, but their views clearly suggest that a significant mood swing has taken place in Putin’s realm. Russia’s dictator is no longer feared and respected as much as he is mistrusted and despised.

With good reason. Putin’s first ten years in office were marked by success, in no small measure due to the serendipitous rise in energy prices at precisely the time that he seized power. The last ten years—and especially the last five—have seen a series of blunders that have harmed Russia, weakened his regime and undermined his authority. Like all narcissistic dictators prone to preening, Putin almost certainly does not appreciate the extent of the damage he has wrought. When the crash comes—sooner rather than later—Putin may be the only Russian who’s surprised by his downfall. A wise West would do well to prepare for this eventuality by developing strategies for containing the damage that regime, and possibly country, collapse will entail.

Harming Russia

Five to ten years ago, Russia and its people were respected and admired by much of the world. The country was rapidly integrating into the world economy. Its borders were secure; its neighbors friendly. Relations with the United States, the European Union and NATO were complicated, but mostly positive. No foreign-policy adventures were threatening to pull Russia into a quagmire and cost billions.

Putin’s aggressive policies have transformed Russia into a pariah, a rogue state. Russians are viewed with suspicion, as spies, hackers, assassins or wild-eyed fanatics.

The contrast with today’s Russia could hardly be greater. Putin’s aggressive policies have transformed Russia into a pariah, a rogue state. Russians are viewed with suspicion, as spies, hackers, assassins or wild-eyed fanatics. Thanks to sanctions, Russia’s economy has withdrawn into itself. Near-autarky has slowed GDP growth to a trickle, killed innovation and hastened a brain drain. The Baltic states, Poland, Finland, Kazakhstan and even Belarus fear a Russian invasion and have responded by arming or looking for allies. Ukraine, which was well on the way to becoming a vassal state under former President Viktor Yanukovych, is on the verge of leaving the Russian sphere of influence for good. Relations with the United States resemble a cold war.

The European Union backs sanctions. NATO, an alliance in search of a mission, vision and raison d’etre after the collapse of the Soviet Union, became galvanized after Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. Despite knowing about the USSR’s luckless war in Afghanistan, America’s endless involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Russia’s economic incapacity to sustain expensive foreign embroilments, Putin embarked on a permanent and costly presence in Syria and, thus, in the Middle East and, more recently, leapt, eyes wide shut, into Africa.

Ironically, Putin has succeeded in creating the very enemies and the very encirclement that his propaganda always invoked as a rationale for his expansionist policies. This is blowback par excellence.

Weakening the regime

Like all dictators the world over, Putin has constructed a personalistic regime within which he wields power in conjunction with four key elites: the inner circle of his immediate cronies, the forces of coercion assembled in the secret police, national guard, and armed forces, the oligarchs and organized crime. Putin makes the decisions, they provide their support, and, in turn, he keeps them sated with material goods. The population has been demobilized and depoliticized by a combination of coercion and violence directed at individual vocal oppositionists, a vast propaganda apparatus that rests on regime control of most of the popularly consumed media and that promotes an image of a hypermasculine Putin incapable of error, a party (United Russia) that serves as a vehicle for promoting and coopting activists from within the population, and a huge budget generated by the windfall profits from high energy prices.

Ironically, Putin has succeeded in creating the very enemies and the very encirclement that his propaganda always invoked as a rationale for his expansionist policies. This is blowback par excellence.

Money made the system work. Russia’s energy profits were so large that Putin and his four elites could steal billions, and enough still remained for infrastructure, social programs, and other benefits that accrued to ordinary Russians. Once energy prices fell and sanctions were imposed, money became short and the elites’ only reason for supporting Putin— self-enrichment—began to lose its persuasiveness, while the people’s enthusiasm for Putin and his projects began to wane. Putin has responded by promoting a military buildup and creating a powerful national guard: as a former KGB officer, he understands that his survival depends on his ability to maintain their loyalty and compel elites to obey him. As a result, the “power vertical” Putin constructed has become increasingly brittle.

The hierarchy still exists; he still runs the show; and no one within the elites has-yet-dared to challenge him openly. But Russian elites, like all elites, are self-centered and concerned above all with their own interests, the key one being survival. They are surely looking for alternatives, spinning scenarios, and considering just how they’ll respond to Putin when the day comes that he faces a crisis he cannot master. That’s why the growing number of Russians talking about the regime’s weakness is, in fact, a barometer of moods within the regime and portends nothing good for it.

Undermining his authority

A day of reckoning for Putin will come because he, like all dictators who have stayed in power for exceedingly long periods of time, has run out of steam. He is stuck in his routines and is incapable of seeing Russia and its people with fresh eyes. He thinks of himself as infallible, inevitable, and indispensable. Not surprisingly, he has become increasingly prone to making dreadful mistakes. The long list of harms he has done to Russia are proof of that, as is the power vertical’s decay. Consider in this light his self-defeating policy toward Ukraine with respect to the Sea of Azov and the autonomy of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. Russia’s appropriation of the sea will do economic harm to Ukraine, but also consolidate Kiev’s resolve to turn its back on Russia.

Moscow’s opposition to Ukrainian religious autonomy and its condemnation of the Constantinople Patriarch’s actions in support of Ukraine have only isolated Russia and persuaded most Ukrainians that no compromise with Russia is possible. A charm offensive toward Ukraine would split Ukrainians and activate pro-Russian constituencies, but Putin, evidently, cannot imagine such a course of action, probably because it would suggest that he is weak and that his virility is less than his image projects.

Money made the system work. Russia’s energy profits were so large that Putin and his four elites could steal billions, and enough still remained for infrastructure, social programs, that accrued to ordinary Russians.

Quick, little, victorious wars that turn out to be protracted, extensive, and undecided are the most common shock that dictators unwittingly bring about, as the Argentine junta learned when it invaded the Falkland Islands. Natural disasters can also end regimes, as Anastasio Somoza discovered in Nicaragua. Assassinations can precipitate wars and topple empires.

Putin could easily be tempted to occupy Belarus, seize northeastern Estonia or northern Kazakhstan, or invade southeastern Ukraine in the expectation that victorious Russian troops would sweep in undeterred with flags waving. Far more likely, the Belarusians, Estonians, Kazakhs and Ukrainians will fight, the West will somehow get involved, and, as Russian casualties mount, both Russian elites and public constituencies will look for alternatives to Putin.

As Russian commentator Igor Eidman puts it, “the Putin regime, like a rotten tree, awaits a good kick which will leave it in rotten shards. But the dictator himself is in euphoria.”

Will Russia survive?

Russia’s misfortune lies in the fact that its stability is directly dependent on the Putin regime’s stability. If the regime goes, so too, might Russia. The immediate spark would be Putin’s inglorious departure, which would provoke a vicious power struggle between and among the elites. Given the prominence of the forces of coercion, that struggle will almost certainly be violent and bloody. Oligarchs and professionals will flee the country with their assets. People will take to the streets; rioting and looting would likely happen. Non-Russians would take advantage of the turmoil in Moscow to seize power and possibly secede; some radicals might be tempted to cleanse their regions of Russians. Ukrainians might decide to launch a counteroffensive in eastern Ukraine and the Crimea. China might feel itself compelled to protect its compatriots in Siberia. The collapse could result.

A charm offensive toward Ukraine would split Ukrainians and activate pro-Russian constituencies, but Putin, evidently, cannot imagine such a course of action, probably because it would suggest that he is weak.

Just as collapse would be the worst-case scenario, so the seizure of power by democratic forces allied to elites and publics would be the best-case scenario. In all likelihood, Russia’s fate would be somewhere in between—with the medium-term outcome being a protracted time of troubles along the lines of the one that afflicted Muscovy in the early sixteenth century. Even that would be no cause for celebration for Russia’s neighbors, as festering instability would produce streams of refugees and again raise the problem of loose nukes.

The United States and Europe must finally understand what the Eastern Europeans know— that Putin is a menace to the world and to Russia.

What should the West do?

The United States and Europe must finally understand what the Eastern Europeans know—that Putin is a menace to the world and to Russia. The solution to the problem of Putin was provided by George Kennan after World War II. Containment worked then, and it can work now, if directed at Putin. The difference is that, then, its goal was to weaken the USSR. Now, its goals would be to keep Putin from making a fatal mistake and thereby to save Russia—as well as, not incidentally, its neighbors.

Alexander J. Motyl

is a Professor of Political Science, Rutgers University-Newark. He is a specialist on Ukraine, Russia, and the USSR, and on nationalism, revolutions, empires, and theory and the author of 10 books of nonfiction. He is also a novelist, poet, and painter.

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