Russia’s autocrat may be weakened, but his grip on power is greater than many people realize.
In recent weeks, Ukrainian forces have had a string of military victories, Russia has begun to pull back to eastern Ukraine, and Vladimir Putin appears increasingly isolated, with U.S. intelligence reporting that his advisors have not been giving him honest assessments of the war. The evidence of atrocities committed in Bucha and elsewhere will lead to further international isolation of Putin’s regime. This sequence of events has led some Russia watchers to conclude that Putin is getting weaker and his position as Russia’s leader is growing more vulnerable. This is almost certainly wrong—Russia’s autocrat is more secure than most people believe.
Still, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine—the worst European war in almost eighty years—represents a dangerous gamble for Putin, his elites, and the population. Those who argue that Putin is unlikely to survive the war say that, even with near-total control of the media, heavy economic sanctions will make it hard for the Kremlin to maintain support for a protracted conflict. Public criticism and opposition to the war will grow, and the elites might eventually fragment, which would open a pathway for Putin’s ouster.
Previous Russian military defeats have brought about social and political change: The Russian empire’s defeat in the Crimean War (1853–56) triggered liberal reforms; the Russo-Japanese War (1904–05) sparked the First Russian Revolution (1905–07); World War I led to the Second Russian Revolution (1917–23); and the Soviet-Afghan War (1979–89) helped to spur Mikhail Gorbachev’s reform drive in the late 1980s.
Yet in other cases, botched military adventures yielded no significant changes. For example, Stalin’s losses during the Winter War (1939–40) and failure to conquer Finland did not weaken the Soviet dictator’s grip on power. And Boris Yeltsin, Russia’s first democratic president, won reelection in 1996 despite his dwindling popularity in the aftermath of Russia’s de facto defeat in the first Chechen war (1994–95).
Why the different outcomes? The defeats in the Russo-Japanese War, First World War, and Soviet-Afghan War all happened under regimes with a burgeoning civil society, a weak ruler susceptible to public pressure, and reformist leaders. Putin’s Russia, in contrast, is a consolidated autocracy that is becoming increasingly more repressive, and both the elites and the broader population are without mechanisms to influence Putin’s decisions. Moreover, a large swathe of the population depends on the state for its livelihood, making it hard for many to ever consider turning against the regime, even when the economy is spiraling.
Russia’s elites are unlikely to pose a serious challenge to Putin. The Kremlin has been tightening the screws on the country’s elites since the massive 2011–12 popular protests against fraudulent elections, when signs of elite defections started to emerge. Since 2014, according to political scientist Nicolay Petrov, the regime has been engaging in large-scale antielite repression. Today, those suspected of disloyalty are arrested and jailed for long terms. The rest live in fear.
Putin’s closest circles are often described as a mix of technocrats and siloviki (officials from the security forces). Those most likely to oppose Putin’s war on Ukraine are the oligarchs with Western business connections and pro-Western technocrats, such as former deputy prime ministers Arkady Dvorkovich (under Dmitri Medvedev) and Anatoly Chubais (under Yeltsin). These elites have, at best, very limited influence on key decisions, and therefore can do little to protest other than resign from their positions, as Chubais did several weeks ago. Attempting regime change is not a realistic option.
Many of the siloviki, like Putin, “served in the KGB and have conservative, often conspiratorial political views.” A number of these security men share Putin’s beliefs about Ukraine and the West. But it would not matter much if they didn’t. Studies suggest that for the most part, the siloviki are only weakly connected to one another. They are not friends, do not share common business interests, and do not participate in the same charitable projects. Almost none of them had worked together before joining Putin’s elite. They therefore lack the interpersonal trust necessary for cooperation, seriously reducing the prospects of a palace coup.
Whatever the real outcome of the war, a large share of Russians will believe that Putin was victorious. When it comes to issues of little personal salience, most Russians tend to be highly susceptible to official propaganda. Short of the total loss of Donetsk and Luhansk, the Kremlin will be able to sell almost any outcome as a win. According to one poll taken shortly before the invasion, some 50 percent of Russians passively backed war with Ukraine. Those numbers rose after the war began, reflecting a rally-around-the-flag effect. State-controlled television channels have proven time and again that they can quickly change Russians’ opinions on foreign-policy issues. In September 2015, for example, 69 percent of Russians opposed providing direct military assistance to Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. By early October, just a few weeks later, 72 percent of Russians were supporting their country’s bombing campaign in Syria. Similarly, in November 2021, 45 percent of Russians had positive views of Ukraine, and 43 percent had negative views. By February 2022, however, this ratio had reversed—35 percent positive and 52 percent negative.
Putin’s approval ratings have grown during past military campaigns and periods of rising militarism—at the beginning of the Second Chechen War in 1999, during the 2008 Russo-Georgian War, and after the 2014 annexation of Crimea. That is also happening now: According to a poll conducted by the Levada Center, an independent Russian research organization, Putin’s approval numbers jumped from 71 percent in February to 83 percent in March 2022. For Russia’s atomized and isolated society, the regime’s military action against an alleged evil provides a rare opportunity to feel like part of a collective whole. This is why the war “sells well.” Russians historically have given Putin particularly high marks for what they see as “reinforcing Russia’s international standing.” Even if one views such polling skeptically, the rallying effect around past conflicts suggests that his support is likely greater now than before the Kremlin began the war in February.
Russians’ approval of the war, however, is not due solely to lack of real information. When presented with evidence of atrocities committed by Russian soldiers in Ukraine, many Russians refuse to believe it—even when it is their own blood relatives sharing the information. Russian propaganda has, over many years, framed every conflict as one in which the always good Russian liberators are freeing neighboring countries from evil. When given facts that challenge preexisting beliefs, people are naturally uncomfortable and try to find ways to rationalize the discrepancies. These days, Russia’s main TV channels air wartime propaganda almost exclusively (it has now replaced all entertainment content on the main television stations), thus ensuring nonstop reinforcement of what they already believe. How then, could ordinary Russians be expected to radically revise their attitudes about this war?
These trends will now intensify as prodemocracy and opposition-minded Russians flee the country in large numbers. By some estimates, up to 200,000 have left Russia since the start of the war, and at least 30 of the 76 people whom Russia deems “foreign agents” have already left. Those who stay will have little choice but to support and comply with the regime’s policies and ideology.
The Russian Mafia State
The West has put high hopes on economic sanctions for stopping the war. Russia is now the most sanctioned country in the world, surpassing Iran. Russia’s economy is likely to suffer deeply as a result, with GDP plummeting, inflation skyrocketing, and some industries (aviation, for example) withering. But will any of this cause the regime to lose strength?
The Kremlin’s response so far suggests that it still has tools at its disposal to defend against a total economic meltdown. Although Russia’s central bank did have to enforce capital controls and mandate the conversion of 80 percent of export revenue into rubles, it is still able to provide banks with sufficient liquidity to meet their liabilities and stop a bank panic. And money continues to flow into Russia thanks to its energy exports. Before the war, the West had, on average, been paying Russia about US$500 million a day for oil and gas. Since the invasion, the European Union has paid Russia €35 billion ($38 billion) for fuel, 35 times more than what it sent Ukraine to bolster its defense against Russia (€1 billion or $1.1 billion). Russia’s export earnings in combination with declining imports, will likely produce a fairly large positive balance of foreign trade this year. The federal budget will remain balanced or in surplus, partly due to the ruble devaluation. By some estimates, between 60 and 70 percent of Russia’s GDP now comes from state-related sectors, many of which are insulated from external shocks because of state demand for defense, education, healthcare, and communications. And Turkey, China, and other non-Western producers will help make up for a good deal of import embargoes.
Not only does Russia have in place certain safeguards against total economic collapse, but it has also made sure that a huge share of the population relies on the state for a living. The Russian regime, of which Putin is the sole center, keeps the loyalty of the people by doling out spoils—including government appointments, business contracts, jobs, and the like to maintain support. Putin and his cronies secure political support and mobilize voters specifically through payments from state coffers in the form of pensions, allowances, and wages. It is not just lower-income groups such as retirees who are state-dependent. So is much of Russia’s middle class, 48 percent of whom worked for the state in 2018. As long as the regime can keep payments to the broader public flowing, sanctions-induced economic stagnation and lack of investment won’t make a serious dent in Putin’s popularity.
In the longer term, however, Western sanctions will affect the population. And polls show that those Russians who expect the war on Ukraine to worsen their personal economic situation are less likely to be in favor of Putin’s aggression. Therefore, once the sanctions start to eat away at people’s disposable incomes, popular support for the war and the regime will take a hit. This might lead to social unrest. But if it does, the Kremlin is prepared and will respond with a heavy hand.
In recent years, Russia has doubled down on domestic repression. Since mid-2020, the regime has clamped down on all segments of Russian civil society—political activists, journalists, and lawyers—and new digital technologies are intensifying the surveillance state. Now most of the political activists who normally would have organized protests are in jail or have fled the country. The war has also provided the regime with an additional excuse for imposing new restrictions. Although the Kremlin has refrained from large-scale repressions, it has closed all major independent news outlets and blocked popular international social-media platforms (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram), and rumors are circulating that Russia will introduce its own sovereign internet (akin to China’s).
The Kremlin is also expected to tighten its control over elections. In early March, the State Duma adopted a law allowing online voting in elections across Russia. Going forward, the system, which helped to elect pro-Kremlin candidates in the September 2021 Moscow elections, can be used across the country in regional and national elections. This will enable the Kremlin to get its preferred candidates elected even with declining popular support, making regime sustainability even less dependent on popular approval.
What Is to Come?
Despite the predictions of overly hopeful Russia analysts, the Kremlin’s resilience should not be underestimated. Contingencies such as the duration of the war and the price of oil may weaken it, but Putin’s regime is not likely to fall in the near future. As long as it has the resources to dole out as patronage and buy the loyalty of various parts of the population, it is likely to withstand the many challenges that come its way. If the Kremlin’s energy revenues dry up due to sanctions, however, it will begin to lose leverage. The steps that the West has been taking since the start of the war will certainly lower those revenues, but a full energy embargo on Russia would be needed to seriously threaten Putin.
A more likely scenario is the long-term transformation of Russia into something similar to a nuclear Iran. This might look like an internationally isolated regime adept at avoiding the pain of sanctions with a mixed economy and large state-owned sector and acceptance of long-term stagnation. And while the Russian regime lacks an elaborate religious fundamentalist ideology to lend it legitimacy, as Iran has, the Kremlin can, at least in the near term, substitute instead a quasi-ideology of smoldering revanchist anti-Westernism complemented with nuclear threats and occasional military escapades against neighboring states. Much as it has done over the last decade.
Maria Snegovaya is a postdoctoral fellow at Virginia Tech, an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, and a visiting scholar at the Institute for European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies and the Illiberalism Studies Program at George Washington University.
Copyright © 2022 National Endowment for Democracy and Johns Hopkins University Press
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