Can we find an offramp for Putin?
In thinking about what to do about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, two schools have emerged: involuntary and voluntary. Involuntary approaches advocate various strategies to force Russian President Vladimir Putin to change his actions. These strategies include 1) assisting Ukraine militarily, 2) providing incentives for a Russian military or palace coup, 3) promoting a Russian people’s revolution, and 4) various direct measures, such as jailing or even killing Putin. Some of these strategies may be accelerated or catalyzed by sanctions.
By contrast, voluntary approaches look for various offramps that might be offered to Putin as ways to defuse the crisis. Some offramps would cause Putin to lose some of his oligarchic power and wealth, while others might maintain or even enhance one or both. To be viable, offramps would have to be perceived by Putin as ones in which he remains more or less in control of his future. These approaches have taken on an added urgency since Putin raised Russia’s nuclear alert level on Feb. 27.
In thinking about whether involuntary or voluntary approaches will work, it is important to understand that Putin is not just an autocrat. He is an oligarch, and a very effective one at that. Like entrepreneurs, the most effective oligarchs are always and everywhere opportunists. And from his perspective, until the Ukrainian invasion, Putin had a perfect track record in seizing opportunities. Indeed, he saw the invasion as his biggest opportunity yet, I think.
Russian- American Military analyst Dmitri Alperovitch recently summarized Putin’s track record of opportunism, It is quite impressive:
- 1999 Second Chechen War — won
- 2006 Litvinenko poisoning — done
- 2014 Crimea annexation — mission accomplished
- 2015 Syrian military intervention — key regional ally protected
- 2016 U.S. election interference — disrupted key adversary
- 2017 French election interference — weakened democratic legitimacy of key NATO member
- 2018 Skripal poisonings — sent a message to traitors, actual and potential
- 2019 Chechen militant assassination — enemy eliminated
- 2020 Navalny poisoning — Putin’s greatest adversary weakened
If you think about each of these (often distasteful) events as Putin would — as new ventures of a sort — then you can understand that Putin sees himself as a winner with an unbroken winning streak. An opportunist par excellence.
Why does this matter now? Because an opportunist with a winning track record like Putin is more likely to double down than to back down. So involuntary measures might be counterproductive, and offramps might be a viable alternative.
To think about the offramps that might be offered to Putin, let’s first consider the historical record. In the oligarch database that I maintain, three types of offramps can be found: constitutional, extra-constitutional and other. Constitutional offramps include losing an election, resignation and votes of no confidence. These account for 78 percent of the offramps. Extra-constitutional offramps are much less common — 9 percent of the total — and include military coups and being deposed. The remaining 13 percent of the offramps are through death in office, mostly nonviolently.
What does this history tell us? It suggests that, on average, oligarchs like Putin have relatively little to fear after they leave power. That is an important point that can help build confidence with Putin if offramp discussions begin.
Of course, history is a bit more complicated than that. Many oligarchs took offramps in democratic systems of government. Only a few oligarchs that I have studied did so in autocratic systems like the one over which Putin prevails. Of these, the most relevant example may be Suharto. Indonesia’s former head of state left office in 1998 due to the Asian financial crisis, subsequent economic turmoil and resulting political unrest. After he left office, Suharto was never jailed for his many crimes. However, he was investigated and charged, and some relatives and associates served relatively short sentences for related transgressions. He died in Jakarta in 2008 (and was known when I lived there to offer passersby a cup of tea and a chat from time to time). Upon his death, Suharto was referred to as one of Indonesia’s “best sons” by its then-president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.
Russia’s post-Putin future depends very much on the nature of the transition. If Putin is forced from office involuntarily, then Russia’s prognosis seems clouded. Involuntary transitions have been the norm so far in post-communist Russia (Boris Yeltsin’s departure was unexpected), and, before that, the Soviet Union.
A voluntary transition for Putin seems like a better path forward. While it is unlikely that this will happen through elections under the current constitution, creative statesmanship might create options. Examples of offramps that could be offered to Putin by those who succeed him include a quiet retirement at his palace on the Black Sea, internal or external exile — or even promotion to some ex officio status as “father of the nation” or some such. The nature of these options will depend on who will follow Putin and how Putin responds from this point forward.
While some may see the prospect of a Putin offramp as odious, we must consider that he still remains very much in control of a nuclear-armed state. Oligarchs like him are used to getting their way, and if we wish to avoid a violent and messy transition, we would do well to remember that.
David Lingelbach is associate professor of entrepreneurship at The University of Baltimore. 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. He has studied for more than a quarter century.