Will Putin survive his ‘catastrophic’ war in Ukraine?

Vladimir Poutine.

Vladimir Poutine. Illustrated | Getty Images

When Russian President Vladimir Putin launched his three-pronged invasion of neighboring Ukraine in February 2022, his aim was to obliterate Ukraine as a sovereign nation within days. At the time, that seemed a plausible goal, in Russia and in the West. Almost a year later, Ukraine’s survival is a much safer bet than Putin’s.

Ukraine has systematically and strategically retaken half of the territory seized by Russia, inflicting a humiliating loss after a debilitating setback. As Ukraine’s battlefield victories pile up, the United States and its NATO allies are supplying it with increasingly sophisticated weapons.

“If 2023 continues as it started, chances are Ukraine will be able to deliver on President Volodymyr Zelensky’s promise to take back all of Ukraine by the end of the year – or at least enough of territory to put a definitive end to the Russian threat”, writes Liz Sly to The Washington Post.

Meanwhile, the sanctions-hit Russian economy is struggling to produce or import new ammunition, and its heavy battlefield losses have prompted Putin to institute an unpopular project.

War is unpredictable, and Ukraine’s blood and treasure are not endless. But if Russia, the former superpower, loses its war in Ukraine, will that end Putin’s grip on power? Or his lifetime lease? In other words, will Putin survive his invasion of Ukraine?

Putin’s war can ruin Russia in many ways – it is already “turning Russia into a failed state, with uncontrolled borders, private military formations, a fleeing population, moral decay and the possibility of ‘a civil conflict’, writes Arkady Ostrovsky on The Economist – but there are really only three ways to topple Putin himself: he could die, resign or be involuntarily retired.

Putin’s life

Putin fashions himself a physically fit judo champ, hockey player, who hunts wild game and occasionally rides bare-chested on horseback. But as he emerged from extreme COVID-19 isolation, rumors began to spread that he was sick or even dying.

Valery Solovey, a Russian political analyst and Kremlin critic, alleged in 2020 that Putin had cancer and Parkinson’s disease and underwent emergency surgery during the year. New lines The magazine reported in May 2022 that “a growing chorus of those close to Putin or his domestic intelligence apparatus” are murmuring about his poor health, and an “unidentified oligarch close to the Kremlin” has been secretly recorded describing Putin as “very leukemia patient.”

“The proof of the preponderance of disparate if not contradictory claims of Putin’s impending demise is Putin himself,” Michael Weiss wrote at New lines. “He certainly looks bad. The bullfrog look, the clumsy gait, the restless demeanor at TV events.” Putin “really doesn’t feel very well,” especially after Russia’s military defeats, Solovey told Ukraine’s UNIAN news agency in November 2022. “He has problems, stomach pains, etc. Most likely, he’s having trouble controlling himself.”

Kyrylo Budanov, Ukraine’s military intelligence chief, told ABC News in January that “Putin is terminally ill, he will die before the end of the war and there will be a transfer of power.” Based on their human sources, he added, “we think it’s cancer.”

“There are two ways to explain why so many rumors are circulating around Putin’s health,” The Economist‘s Arkady Ostrovsky said in June 2022. “One, of course, is political, if you will: so many people around Putin now who realize he made this extraordinary mistake that pushed Russia into this catastrophic war. There are many people who see and wish for the best outcome, which is Putin dying in office.”

“The other, of course, is the possibility that he is very, very seriously ill,” although “we can’t verify that,” Arkady added. “The fact that they are circulating, however, is politically significant. It is proof of the fragility of this regime and how quickly it could crumble, of everything that Putin is holding together and how many people who want him dead.”

The Kremlin has denied the health rumors. “In recent months, so-called Ukrainian, American and British information ‘specialists’ have been spouting various false information about the president’s health,” Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters in July. “But it’s nothing but fakes.” CIA Director William Burns also threw cold water on the rumours, telling the Aspen Security Forum in July that “there are a lot of rumors about President Putin’s health and as far as as we can judge, he is too healthy”.

Putin’s Power

Almost as soon as Putin launched his invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, and certainly since it began to go awry, “there have been ongoing deliberations about how long Putin will stay in power, his hypothetical demise being the result of failing health or domestic political eviction”. Shawn Cochran writes in war on the rocks.

Certainly, there is no shortage of people who would be happy to take Putin’s place.

Abbas Gallyamov, Putin’s former speechwriter, told Khodorkovsky Live in January that Putin’s inner circle no longer sees “Putin as the guarantor of their stability” and that they personally fear the rise of the mercenary founder. of the Wagner Yevgeny Prigozhin group. Rather than risk being violently overthrown like Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi or losing the next election, Putin will nominate a ‘trusted underling’ as the next president, and ‘will have the opportunity to end his days quietly’ in his palace of a billion dollars on the Rear Sea. , said Gallyamov.

“I think there is a chance that Putin will be forced out of office,” said former Russian diplomat Boris Bondarev, who left the Russian mission to the United Nations in May because of the war. Daily Mail in December 2022. “But first he must be seen by his people as a loser, as someone who lied and made them fools”, and “that will only happen if he is really and largely defeated in Ukraine”. If that happens, Bondarev said, Putin’s elite “could force him to fall asleep and never wake up.”

So far, Russian nationalists and pro-war military bloggers have limited their scathing criticism of the war in Ukraine to the Russian Defense Ministry and military generals, not Putin. But a prominent military blogger, former Russian militia commander Igor Girkin, “strongly implied” in January that he would support Putin’s removal, even if such a statement had “suicidal” consequences, reported. the think tank of the Institute for the Study of War.

Putin himself “understands that it was a mess”, but “I don’t think he accepted that he was defeated, because the essence of being Putin is never to accept that you were defeated,” military specialist Fred Kagan told CBS News. . “The art here helps Putin understand that he’s lost this trick, and it’s time to fold this hand”, and it depends on the Ukrainian military and NATO weapons.

“If Putin leaves office (voluntarily or not) while the war in Ukraine is ongoing, his successor may choose to stop fighting, but the decision will not be easy or without risk, and that goes for whatever Putin’s replacement,” Cochran wrote on war on the rocks.

Putin’s prospects

So can Putin survive? “By some measure, Russia has already lost this war militarily and politically,” Ivan Gomza and Graeme Robertson assess at The Washington Post, and “research suggests that leading a country to defeat in a war is politically costly”. But “highly personalistic” dictators like Putin “are far less likely to lose office after defeat in war” than democratically elected leaders, and “as long as Putin continues to provide significant personal benefits to his close allies, they are likely to stay together”. , lest they be hanged separately.”

Yet “Russia has a history of regime change following unsuccessful wars”, from the Bolshevik Revolution after the Russo-Japanese War and World War I to the collapse of the Soviet Union after its defeat in Afghanistan. Liana Fix and Michael Kimmage register Foreign Affairs. “Revolutions have occurred in Russia when the government has failed in its economic and political goals and failed to react to crises”, because its legitimacy is undermined.

“Putin is in danger in all of these categories,” Fix and Kimmage add. “Putin’s war in Ukraine was supposed to be his crowning achievement, a demonstration of how far Russia has come since the collapse of the Soviet empire in 1991,” but he mismanaged the war, and now the country’s economy is in trouble. “In the face of these dismal trends, Putin has doubled down on his mistakes, while insisting that the war is going ‘according to plan’.”

Russia’s economic and battlefield losses suggest Putin’s grip on power is weakening, but he is “more secure than most people believe”, wrote Maria Snegovaya at Democracy Journal in April 2022. “Previous Russian military defeats have brought about social and political changes”, but not all of them. In the face of defeat, as in the case of Josef Stalin’s failure to conquer Finland in 1939-40, Russia’s moderate elites might be “unlikely to pose a serious challenge to Putin.”

And a ‘weakened Putin’ is not one of Russia’s greatest weaknesses, Askold Lozynskyj tells the Kyiv Post. These are “that it is a prison of a hundred captive nations, that its economy is not productive, and that due to its lack of financial means its military power is grossly exaggerated”. Putin is “nasty”, but he is “not delusional”, adds Lozynskyj. “He is aware of the internal unrest within an empire he maintains through force and repression.”

If it becomes clear that Ukraine will not be defeated, the “most likely” scenario is that Putin leaves office and a “vicious power struggle” ensues between various factions – pro-right-wing nationalists war seeking an account, authoritarian conservatives attached to the status quo and “semi-democratic” reformers, Alexander J. Motyl retorts Foreign Police. “We don’t know who will win, but we can confidently predict that the power struggle will weaken the regime and distract Russia from what remains of its war effort.”

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