One Year On, Why Putin Has Already Lost the War
“I do not see how Putin could maintain support of the elite for two or three years.”
Vladimir Putin may or may not be able to hold on to the territorial gains he’s made in Ukraine since the launch of his “special military operation” a year ago. But Russia watchers say that those gains have come at unsustainably high costs for his regime.
For the foreseeable future, the Russian leader will preside over an economically stagnant country with greatly diminished geopolitical influence and a new subservience to China. Some dissidents and scholars living outside of the country don’t expect his regime to last until the middle of the decade.
Putin clearly imagines a different future for his government and his war. In a speech this week marking the anniversary of the expanded invasion, he likened himself to Peter the Great and, in Putinesque fashion, cast the war in Ukraine in broadly historic terms. “Peter the Great waged the Northern War for 21 years…When he founded the new capital (Saint Petersburg), none of the European countries recognized this territory as Russia. Everyone recognized it as Sweden. And there, from time immemorial, along with the Finno-Ugric peoples, the Slavs lived, and this territory was under the control of the Russian state.”
The throwback to the patriotic imperialist crusade of a 16th-century Russian tsar doesn’t really comport with Russia’s stated justifications for the invasion— the creeping threat of NATO, mistreatment of Russian speakers in the Donbass, “satanism”—but at least it's an honest rendering of how Putin views himself historically.
Economist and University of Chicago public policy professor Konstantin Sonin sees a more recent historical model for Putin’s wartime Russia.
“An analog will be World War I, which started for Russia with a great spike of enthusiasm, people volunteering en masse etc. Yet in two years, everything changed. By the end of 1916, everyone wanted the tsar to go; by early 1917, the state collapsed,” Sonin said.
If that script plays out again, the collapse will include Putin.
“I do not see how Putin could maintain support of the elite for two or three years,” he said.
The Russian economy appears relatively stable despite the heavy Western sanctions levied in the past year, but that facade of stability is flimsy, says Sonin. In November, he argued in Foreign Affairs that Russia is headed for low economic growth and high inflation as a result of Putin’s extraordinary measures such as nationalizing many private businesses. Result: more than 1,000 big companies have left the country.
“The state was already interfering in the private sector before the war. That tendency has become only more pronounced, and it threatens to further stifle innovation and market efficiency,” he wrote. “The only way to preserve the viability of the Russian economy is through either major reforms—which are not in the offing—or an institutional disruption similar to the one that occurred with the fall of the Soviet Union.”
Another sign of how precarious Putin’s situation has become is the open infighting between political elites, says Leonid Volkov, chief of staff for Alexei Navalny, the jailed political prisoner who is Putin’s chief political rival.
In a recent conversation with reporters, Volkov said that the sort of open confrontation between Russian defense chief Sergei Shoigu and Putin pal and Wagner Mercenary group chief Yevgeny Prigozhin would have been impossible a year ago. “They were not allowed to fight against each other publicly. They had to come to Putin to resolve their conflicts. So I don't see how Putin could rebuild these bonds under new circumstances.”
Volkov said that Russia’s leader has destroyed his credibility among the elites, even if appearances suggest otherwise.
“Putin clearly had a Plan A, which was to have a military parade in Kyiv in 72 hours [of the February 2022 invasion] and very soon it became clear, he didn't have a Plan B,” he said. “The silence is getting so loud in Russia. Putin has canceled his annual press conference, something he didn't do in 20 years. Putin has canceled the State of the Union speech, which by the way, is his constitutional obligation….
“People are asking more and more questions. And of course, the elite are asking more questions. What's his exit strategy? What he wants to achieve? How he wants to get us out of the situation? These questions are in the air and Putin has nothing to offer, which really makes very, very many, many members of his elite really angry.”
Volkov says that while Putin may threaten another major mobilization, he would be severely challenged to pull off such a feat. In all likelihood, like the mobilization Putin announced last September, a new order would lead many more Russians to leave the country, some conscripts going to the front reluctantly and with poor training, and heavy casualties to achieve essentially stalemate results. “And also, at the same time, zero people, volunteers…no lines at conscription points, despite all the enormous propaganda efforts to sell the idea.”
Volkov is under no impression that, should the regime collapse, Navalny would emerge as the new leader of Russia. But, he says, Navalny’s campaign and growing public distrust of the Putin regime is beginning to show ordinary Russians that an alternative political future is possible. “There is a political alternative for Russia represented by Alexei...and his movement…We now reach millions of supporters, businesses. In our opinion, that actually gives hope.”
A slim minority, about 46 percent, of Russia scholars that the Atlantic Council interviewed in January think that Putin’s government will collapse by 2033.
John Tefft, a former U.S. ambassador to Russia and adjunct senior fellow at RAND, told Defense One that he didn’t want to speculate on when Putin might step down but Tefft didn’t think he was likely to end the war anytime soon. Putin has consistently “doubled-down” on the war at various opportunities, more concretely linking his fate to that of the operation. While the Russian leader would likely find it difficult to achieve new territorial gains, there are signs that he may be able to sustain the military operation, especially if receives military aid from China, something that the State Department says China is considering.
“If the Chinese get more directly involved…That would be a big change. I'm not sure it will change the results of the war, but it will certainly lengthen the war,” said Tefft.
But even that would likely not be a big boon to Putin’s standing. Moreover, said Tefft, Russia was already becoming more and more subservient to China and the war has likely accelerated that trend. “I think the war, from everything I can see, has made Russia even more dependent on China. Obviously they sell their oil and stuff there. But, you know, other than getting gas, oil from the Russians, [the Chinese] were never able to find that many things that they really wanted to buy inside of Russia.”
So what does the end of Putin look like? On the one hand, Russia’s leader has taken considerable steps over the course of the last two decades to make sure that none of his rivals hold enough power to challenge him directly. And many in his inner circle are implicated in the war.
But he might be able to choose a successor. Tefft mentioned Alexei Dyumin, who was Putin’s head of security and now serves as the governor of Tula Oblast. “But I think there's a lot of other people out there who would probably jump in. [Former President Dmitry Anatolyevich] Medvedev, who's turned into a real hardline opponent of the West during this war, is clearly someone who looks like he has ambitions to be president.” Nikolai Platonovich Patrushev, the current hardline head of the Russian security council “would also possibly try to become the president,” said Tefft.
Even if Putin names a successor, his departure from office, whether planned or unplanned, would set up Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin nicely. “Under the rules, the prime minister becomes the acting president and elections have to be held within three months. So Muhshistan would have a chance to succeed there at least for the short term, and then try to position for a run for president, should he choose to do that,” Tefft said.
Volkov concurred that Mishustin is uniquely positioned to take over, especially if Putin is ousted. But that positioning isn’t just bureaucratic. “He’s distanced himself from the war with all possible means. He really tries not to do anything with the war. He is like, ‘I'm a technocrat, I'm running the economy.’ He doesn't go to the frontline. He doesn't pose in camouflage, doesn't do anything war-related, which, I believe, makes him…able to reach out to the West for support during a political crisis. And he's quite smart.”
But, said Sonin: no matter who is in charge when Putin leaves, they won’t be able to continue to shape policy in the same way.
“I think that any new government, any new figure—even the extreme military/nationalistic types—will have to stop the war and open negotiations. Basically, there are a lot of potential players in Russia. They all fear Putin, but they will not fear anyone else. Anyone else will have to compromise with many, including those who want the war to end.”