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Why Vladimir Putin will fall

The tide is turning for Russian President Vladimir Putin. Just a few weeks ago, few would have predicted that Putin might be on his last legs. Now, a number of RussianUkrainian, Eastern European and American analysts openly suggest that his days may be numbered. Some even say that his end is both inevitable and near. Not everyone agrees with this prognosis, of course, but the mood definitely has swung against Putin.

The argument in favor of Putin’s end generally rests on his genocidal war against Ukraine. That decision appears to have been a strategic mistake that has unleashed all the negative consequences foreseen by those who thought that no rational leader would embark on such folly.

Instead of surrendering upon their first encounter with a Russian soldier, the Ukrainian army and people have fought with remarkable effectiveness, courage and dedication, transforming what was supposed to be a grand and glorious little war into a slog at best and a looming Russian defeat at worst. The Ukrainian army has fought the Russians to a standstill, imposed enormous costs in lives, planes, helicopters, tanks and armored personnel carriers, and is poised for a counter-offensive. Most Ukrainians, and especially expert military analysts, predict victory.  

{mosads}Horrified by Putin’s unprovoked onslaught, the West imposed exceptionally severe sanctions on Russian elites, banks, businesses, airlines and shipping, and closed down the North Stream 2 pipeline. Scores of international businesses left the Russian market. The Russian economy has been thrown into near-Soviet conditions of almost total isolation from the world economy. Inflation and unemployment will rise, the GDP will crash, and living standards will decline precipitously. Even the oligarchs and superrich have lost billions of dollars in the stock market as a result of the ruble’s devaluation.

Putin’s war also has significantly worsened Russia’s security. NATO has been mobilized and galvanized; U.S. troops and military equipment have been deployed in greater numbers to several NATO states; European cooperation with the United States has improved; Finland and Sweden are interested in joining the alliance; and almost all European states — including neutral Switzerland and Sweden — are providing Ukraine with some form of military assistance. The greatest sea change has occurred in formerly skittish Germany, which terminated North Stream 2, increased its military expenditures, and agreed to supply Ukraine with anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons.

Russia has become a pariah and a rogue; its regime is termed “fascist.” Putin is frequently compared to Adolf Hitler, and Russia’s citizens are unwelcome in many parts of the world. Russia has lost whatever soft power it possessed, and it may require decades to improve its image and reputation. This may matter little to average Russians, but it will matter to the affluent Russian professionals who shopped in luxury stores and vacationed on the Riviera.

How can any ruler survive such disastrous consequences for his country?

Proponents of Putin’s coming end suggest that he won’t survive because growing casualties and economic collapse eventually will drive many Russians into the streets and induce economic and political elites to conspire against him.


The combination of popular protest, elite machinations, state failure, declining legitimacy, a grinding war, and international isolation inevitably will have only one outcome: Putin’s ouster. Some analysts suggest that he risks assassination. Others argue that, since Putin is ensconced in a bunker, decapitating him need not entail physical violence. It can be achieved by severing the “thin thread” that binds him to Russia’s executive institutions. Putin can be neutralized simply by being completely isolated.

Skeptics believe that Putin can survive because he controls a vast security apparatus, because the elites know that their survival depends on their maintaining close ties to him, and because the Russians are either too cowed or too brainwashed to turn against their great leader.

These points are valid — but only somewhat. They overlook the lessons of history. Czar Nicholas II, Nicaragua’s Anastasio Somoza, the Shah of Iran, and many other autocrats were deposed or fled even though they had the support of the military and secret police. Depending on circumstances, soldiers and secret policemen often drop their weapons and run or change sides. East Germany’s Stasi agents simply packed their bags and left the secret police headquarters.

Controlling the forces of coercion works when things are going well for the autocrat. When things are not — when a disastrous war is sapping the lifeblood of the military — their loyalty is far from assured. Many of the Czar’s soldiers and policemen joined the Bolsheviks. In turn, many Soviet secret policemen joined the Nazi security services, many of whose members then entered West Germany’s security establishment.

Elites are especially fickle. To be sure, Putin has created and cultivated an inner circle that is completely beholden to him. He has given them positions of authority and, better still, access to state funds. Their standing in society and the state is thus a product of Putin’s favor. But power and money are a double-edged sword. They may appear to guarantee loyalty, and they do, but only as long as elites are prospering and their survival seems assured. When prosperity and survival appear less certain, power and money are weak bonds of fealty.

{mossecondads}Ideology can be a far stronger glue, but, as Imperial Russia’s many coups and Soviet Russia’s many power struggles — and one coup, against Nikita Khrushchev — show, elites will jump ship or attempt to liquidate the captain if they feel they need to. With Russia’s looming economic collapse and international isolation, the oligarchs and cronies will continue to lose billions of dollars.

Will the Russian masses rebel? The question is moot, to some degree, since tens of thousands already have taken to the streets; especially large anti-war demonstrations are taking place in St. Petersburg and Moscow. Thousands have been detained. To be sure, those Russians who oppose Putin’s war and are willing to protest are probably a small minority of the population. But relative size is far less important than location. Revolutions generally occur in capital cities and economic centers. It’s nice when everybody protests, but the protests that really matter are those that affect the economy, banks and, of course, the government. And Muscovites and Petersburgers have amply shown, in the late 1980s, in 2011, and most recently, that they are willing and able to demand regime change.

The writing is on the wall for Putin. His only option is to crack down with still greater force, but that is unlikely to inspire front-line soldiers who are dying in large numbers, assuage impoverished citizens, fix the decrepit economy, and retain the loyalty of his cronies. Sooner rather than later, the thin thread binding him to the outside world will be cut and Putin will be truly isolated in his bunker. The question is how many Ukrainians will die before that happens, and whether the West will be prepared for the aftermath.

Alexander J. Motyl is a professor of political science at Rutgers University-Newark. A specialist on Ukraine, Russia and the USSR, and on nationalism, revolutions, empires and theory, he is the author of 10 books of nonfiction. 

Tags NATO oligarchs Russian invasion of Ukraine Vladimir Putin

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