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Is this it for Putin?

We’ve been studying oligarchs, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, for more than a quarter century. We are not military experts, but the recent Ukrainian military advances against Russia have caused us to ask: Is this it for Putin? Are we now in the endgame for his regime?

Some evidence suggests that the end may be near for Putin. Aside from Ukraine’s impressively rapid reclamation of lots of its territory (the amount seems to grow by the day), some new signs of Putin’s possible demise have emerged, both in Russia and abroad. In recent days, the Smolninskoye district council in St. Petersburg called for Putin to be tried for treason over the war in Ukraine. Social media channels, including those visible in Russia, now routinely show videos of unexplained fires breaking out at government facilities across Russia. This week, Azerbaijan moved militarily against Russian ally Armenia, leading to the deployment of troops of the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). Kazakhstan-Russia relations continue to cool. Perhaps most significantly, Russian pop icon Alla Pugacheva has come out against the war.

None of these developments are good news for Putin. The conventional wisdom certainly suggests that Putin is facing fierce headwinds.

We’re not so sure. Because at the same moment that these anti-Putin moves have occurred, several pro-Putin actions have taken place. Chinese leader Xi Jinping and Putin have met in Samarkand, Uzbekistan — the first time Xi has left China since the pandemic began. This meeting was part of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) meeting, which, aside from Russia and China, included India, Iran and Turkey. The summit has been far from perfect for Putin, who was treated as damaged goods, but participants showed no signs of abandoning him. In November, Xi and Putin will meet again at the G-20 Summit in Bali, Indonesia. It seems obvious that China will not allow Russia to collapse in the ways that so many partisans in the West would like. And, unless China can locate a leader who is superior to Putin, that suggests, whatever Putin’s other weaknesses, China has now probably got his back in some form.

To better assess how Putin is likely to react in the current situation, it’s worth revisiting a few times in the past when he has been down and out.

His current troubles are not his first rodeo. Four events come to mind: the 1996 reelection loss of his mentor, Anatoly Sobchak; the 2000 Kursk submarine disaster; the 2011-12 protests; and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

1) In 1996 Putin managed Sobchak’s election campaign for St. Petersburg mayor, so the subsequent loss (by 1.2 percentage points) reflected directly on the former’s competence. The loss was especially humiliating, given that Sobchak lost to one of Putin’s fellow deputy mayors, Vladimir Yakovlev.

Yet, within a year, Putin had pivoted, moving to Moscow as deputy chief of the Presidential Property Management Department. That move, of course, helped pave the way for his accession two years later as prime minister, then acting president, then president.

2) During the first year of his presidency in 2000, Putin faced a second crisis: the sinking of the Kursk, the world’s largest nuclear attack submarine, in the Barents Sea.

Based on bad advice and poor judgment, Putin didn’t leave his summer holidays to go to the disaster scene. He was widely criticized across Russian society for his silence and disengagement for the crisis’ first week. When he finally met with sailors’ families, he was subjected, as Putin biographer Philip Short relates, to the most brutal public tongue-lashing any Russian leader has ever faced.

While he behaved stoically in the face of these attacks — and was criticized by some in the West for doing so — he delivered on the promises he made to the families. His approval rating returned to its earlier high levels by the end of the year.

3) In 2011-2012, when Putin faced another crisis: large protests in response to election fraud. The fraud wasn’t new, but anti-Putin protests were. Protesters were led by opposition leader Alexei Navalny and supported by high-profile politicians, including former finance minister Alexei Kudrin, Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Nemtsov.

The protesters were the very middle-class people who had benefited the most from his regime, so this development was of real concern to Putin. However, after Putin suggested U.S. meddling in the elections, Russian chauvinism reasserted itself and the protests lost steam. Follow-on protests in 2012 led to targeted arrests and trials and were quickly quelled.

4) Finally, a fourth crisis: the ongoing pandemic. Judging by excess mortality figures, Russia’s response to COVID-19 has been one of the worst in the world. Despite that, and the mismanagement that lay behind the figures, this is a crisis that is made for Putin’s stealthiness.

Indeed, in 2020, after postponing a constitutional referendum, he signed an executive order giving himself two more six-year terms in power. In structural terms, at least, this move allowed him to emerge stronger from the pandemic.

As we consider Putin’s possible demise, what can we conclude from this track record? First, Putin has been down and out before, and he has come back each time. Second, over time, Putin has come back by employing increasingly authoritarian means. And third, when facing physical threat (as happened during his meeting with the Kursk families in 2000), he displayed courage that most politicians have never shown.   

We remain skeptical that Putin is on the verge of losing power. Despite the serious blows he has suffered, Putin remains one of the most consequential oligarchs of the post-World War II era. Global uncertainty remains high, an ideal environment for oligarchs like Putin to exploit. The war seems likely to go on for a long time, and Russia, while cowed, is unlikely to give up easily. And that Russia — its hands covered with innocent blood — will likely be led by those who do not fear that blood. Leaders like Putin.

David Lingelbach is a professor of entrepreneurship at The University of Baltimore and an author. He lived and worked in Russia from 1994 to 1999, where he served as president of Bank of America — Russia and worked with Vladimir Putin.

Valentina Rodríguez Guerra is an author and oligarch researcher.

Together they are writing a book about oligarchs.

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