The Treacherous Path to a Better Russia

Ukraine’s Future and Putin’s Fate

“For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power,” U.S. President Joe Biden said of his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, a month after Russia launched a brutal invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. Biden’s off-the-cuff remark, which his administration swiftly sought to walk back, did not merely reflect anger at the destruction unleashed by Putin’s war of choice. It also revealed the deeply held assumption that relations between Russia and the West cannot improve as long as Putin is in office. Such a sentiment is widely shared among officials in the transatlantic alliance and Ukraine, most volubly by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky himself, who last September ruled out peace talks until a new Russian leader is in place.

There is good reason to be pessimistic about the prospects of Russia’s changing course under Putin. He has taken his country in a darker, more authoritarian direction, a turn intensified by the invasion of Ukraine. The wrongful detention of The Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich in March and the sentencing of the opposition activist Vladimir Kara-Murza to a 25-year prison term in April, for example, are eerily reminiscent of measures from Soviet times. Once leaders grow to rely on repression, they become reluctant to exercise restraint for fear that doing so could suggest weakness and embolden their critics and challengers. If anything, Putin is moving Russia more and more toward totalitarianism as he attempts to mobilize Russian society in support of not just his war on Ukraine but also his antipathy to the West.

If the West’s relations with Russia are unlikely to change while Putin is in power, perhaps things could improve were he to depart. But the track record of political transitions that follow the exits of longtime authoritarian leaders offers little room for optimism. The path to a better Russia is not just narrow—it is treacherous. Authoritarian leaders rarely lose power while still waging a war they initiated. As long as the war continues, Putin’s position is more secure, making positive change less likely. What is more, authoritarian regimes most often survive in the wake of the departure of longtime leaders such as Putin; were Putin to die in office or be removed by insiders, the regime would most likely endure intact. In such a case, the contours of Russian foreign policy would stay largely the same, with the Kremlin locked in a period of protracted confrontation with the West.

One development, however, could spark more substantive change in Russia: a Ukrainian victory. Kyiv’s triumph in the war raises the possibility, even if only slightly, that Putin could be forced out of office, creating an opening for a new style of Russian government. A Russian defeat in the war could galvanize the kind of bottom-up pressure that is needed to upend Putin’s regime. Such a development carries risks—of violence, chaos, and even the chance of a more hard-line government emerging in the Kremlin—but it also opens the possibility of a more hopeful future for Russia and for its relations with its neighbors and the West. Although fraught, the most likely path to a better Russia now runs through Ukrainian success.

The first barrier to a post-Putin Russia is, of course, Putin himself. After 23 years in power and despite the challenges that have mounted since his invasion of Ukraine, Putin looks set to retain power until at least 2036—the end of his constitutional term limit—perhaps even longer. Since the end of the Cold War, the typical autocrat who had governed a country for 20 years and was at least 65 years old (Putin is 70) ended up ruling for about 30 years. When such leaders governed personalist autocracies—where power is concentrated in the leader, rather than in a party, junta, or royal family—their typical tenure lasted even longer, as much as 36 years.

Of course, not all autocrats are so durable; just a quarter of post–Cold War autocrats have ruled for 20 years or more. Putin’s durability stems from the creation in Russia of what the political scientist Milan Svolik calls an “established autocracy,” in which regime officials and political and economic elites are fully dependent on the leader and invested in maintaining a status quo from which they benefit. The longer such established autocrats are in power, the less likely they are to be removed by the regime’s insiders. A strong consensus among governing officials about the need to use repression to maintain stability, as is currently on full display in Putin’s Russia, further reduces the likelihood that the leader will be removed against his will.

Russia’s war in Ukraine has done little to change Putin’s outlook. His grip on power has tightened and will remain strong for as long as the fighting continues. Wars encourage people to rally around the flag, suppressing disagreement and dissent for the sake of national solidarity; polls have shown that Putin’s approval rating shot up ten points after he launched the invasion. As a wartime president, Putin has felt empowered to clamp down on critics and quash reporting by independent media outlets and nongovernmental organizations. Perhaps more important, the war has better insulated him from potential challengers from within. A stretched military lacks the bandwidth to mount a coup. In any case, the security services have profited from the war and have little incentive to throw in their lot with coup plotters. For these reasons, the dynamics created by the war and Putin’s own actions have made him more rather than less likely to retain power as the war rages on, further deferring political change in Russia.

Still, Putin will not rule forever. At some point, there will be a post-Putin Russia, even if it arrives only after his death. Since the end of the Cold War, 40 percent of longtime leaders (those rulers in power 20 years or more) of personalist autocracies have relinquished power by dying. Putin appears set to remain in office until the bitter end.

The extreme personalization of the political system, including the absence of a strong ruling party apparatus in Russia, makes Putin’s passing a potentially perilous period. The most likely scenario is that power will pass to the prime minister, currently Mikhail Mishustin, who would become the acting president, as the formal rules dictate. The upper house of Russia’s parliament would then have two weeks to schedule an election. During that time, the Russian elite would battle to determine who would replace Putin. The transition process could be chaotic as key actors vie for power and try to position themselves in ways that maximize and secure their political influence. The list of regime insiders that would battle it out is long and includes the likes of former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev; Sergey Kiriyenko, Putin’s first deputy chief of staff; and Dmitry Patrushev, Russia’s agriculture minister, whose father, Nikolai, is the head of the Security Council. Others outside the regime, such as Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of the Wagner mercenary recruitment firm, could add turbulence to the transition. But ultimately, the fractious elites would most likely converge on a technocrat, someone in the vein of Mishustin or Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin, or another seemingly weak consensus candidate whom all players believe can be controlled and who will preserve the regime that benefits them.

Once the dust settles, Russia will almost certainly remain an authoritarian country. Since the end of the Cold War, authoritarian regimes have outlasted 89 percent of the longtime leaders who died in office. And in every instance in which an authoritarian leader’s death led to the collapse of his regime, its replacement was also authoritarian. Even in personalist autocracies, where the question of succession is considerably fraught, the same regime has survived the leader’s death 83 percent of the time. Occasionally, an authoritarian leader’s death in office can shift the political landscape in liberalizing ways, as when Lansana Conté died in Guinea in 2008, and free and fair elections were held in 2010 for the first time since that country’s independence. More often, however, an authoritarian leader’s death in office is a remarkably unremarkable event.

As the war rages on, Putin’s hold on power strengthens.
When leaders are ousted through a coup or unseated in elections, it is safe to assume that some portion of the elite and the citizenry have lost faith in them. That disgruntlement places the regime itself in jeopardy. But when leaders die of natural causes, no political machinations underlie their demise. The rudiments of the regime remain as they were, and elites have little interest in rocking the boat. Although they may feud behind closed doors about who should take over the leadership, they usually get in line behind whichever individual they deem the safest bet for the regime’s survival.

Were Putin to die in office, his successor would probably change little about the Russian regime and its external relations. Successors who deviate from the status quo invite fierce resistance from the old guard, who maintain considerable control over the levers of power in the system. New leaders who inherit office from deceased autocrats therefore tend to adhere to the previous program. When they try to go off track, demonstrating a tentative interest in liberalizing reform—as did Bashar al-Assad in Syria and Shavkat Mirziyoyev in Uzbekistan during their first terms in office—the organs of the state loyal to their predecessors usually pressure them to revert to more traditionally repressive practices.

Successors of deceased autocrats also tend to keep waging their predecessors’ wars even when such wars are going badly. The political scientist Sarah Croco has found that successors who come from within the regime are likely to continue the conflicts they inherit, given that they would be seen as culpable for a wartime defeat. In other words, even if Putin’s successor does not share the same wartime aims, this leader will be concerned that any settlement that looks like defeat would abruptly bring his tenure to an end. Beyond figuring out how to end the war, Putin’s successor will be saddled with a long list of vexing problems, including how to settle the status of illegally annexed territories such as Crimea, whether to pay Ukraine wartime reparations, and whether to accept accountability for war crimes committed in Ukraine. As such, should Putin die in office, Russia’s relations with the United States and Europe will likely remain complicated, at best.

The war has strengthened Putin’s hold on power, and even his death may not usher in significant change. At this point, only a seismic shift in the political landscape could set Russia on a different path. A Ukrainian triumph, however, could precipitate such a shift. The clearest victory for Ukraine would entail the restoration of its internationally recognized 1991 borders, including the territory of Crimea that Russia annexed in 2014. Battlefield realities will make such a comprehensive victory difficult to accomplish, but lesser outcomes that see Russia lose parts of Ukraine that it held before the February 2022 invasion would still send an unambiguous signal of Putin’s incompetence as a leader, one the Kremlin cannot readily suppress for domestic audiences. Such outcomes would raise the prospect, even if only slightly, of Putin’s ouster and a greater reckoning in the Kremlin. The most probable path to political change in Russia, then, runs through Ukraine.

A Russian defeat will not easily translate into a change at the top. The personalist nature of Putin’s regime creates particularly strong resistance to change. Personalist dictatorships have few institutional mechanisms to facilitate coordination among potential challengers, and the elite tend to view their own fates as intertwined with that of the leader; these dynamics help personalist rulers withstand military losses.

But even personalist authoritarians are not immune to the fallout of a poor military performance. The political scientists Giacomo Chiozza and H. E. Goemans find that from 1919 to 2003, just under half of all rulers who lost wars also lost power shortly thereafter. As with other seismic events such as economic or natural disasters, military defeats can expose leaders as incompetent, shattering their aura of invincibility. Shocks can create a focal point for mobilization, opening the way for the collective action necessary to dislodge entrenched authoritarian rulers. In such systems, citizens who want reform often exist in larger numbers than assumed but keep their preferences hidden. Operating frequently in a distorted and unreliable information environment, they know little about whether others share their views, leading to a situation in which everyone keeps their heads down, and opposition remains private. But a triggering event such as a military defeat can change calculations, encouraging reformist citizens (even if they are only a small minority) to go public with their positions and leading to a cascade effect in which more and more citizens do the same. Put simply, a defeat in the war could serve as the spark that mobilizes opposition to Putin’s rule.

Crucially, in the event of a Russian defeat, moves against Putin will most likely not come directly from his inner circle. In personalist systems such as Putin’s Russia, regime insiders tend to struggle to coordinate an effective challenge to the leader, not least because the leader seeks to play them off one another. The Russian elite are split into what the Russian analyst Tatiana Stanovaya calls the “technocrats,” who are senior bureaucrats, regional governors, and other implementers of Putin’s policies, and the “patriots,” who are the heads of the security services, senior officials in Putin’s United Russia party, and the likes of Prigozhin. These groups hold different visions for solving Russia’s problems and shaping the country’s future. There is therefore a very real risk that a move by one group would not be supported by the other, potentially bringing down the whole system from which they all benefit. Such dangers create high barriers to any challenge to Putin from the inside. Even if some members of the elite wanted to punish Putin for wartime failure, they would have a hard time mustering a united front.

Putin has sought to divide his officials to better insulate himself from a coup. For example, the patriot camp—comprising Russia’s security services and the most likely origin of an elite move against Putin—is intentionally segmented into the Federal Guard Service, the National Guard, and the Federal Security Service, hindering the sort of unity and coordination necessary for a coup. The current absence of a viable alternative to Putin also means there is no center of gravity around which a challenge could coalesce. His ability to use the security services to monitor dissent (including using one service to monitor another) and the high costs that come with the detection of dissent further lessen the chances of an elite rebellion from within.

The data confirm that longtime authoritarian leaders face little risk of coups. Among post–Cold War authoritarian leaders in power for 20 years or more, only ten percent have been ousted in a coup. And, tellingly, no longtime personalist authoritarian leader over 65 (such as Putin) has been ousted in a coup in this period.

But forces originating outside the regime could unseat Putin and meaningfully change Russia’s approach to the world. Given the lack of effective institutions to channel dissent in today’s Russia, opposition to Putin could spill over, creating a groundswell that could dislodge him. In fact, in cases in which longtime personalist authoritarian leaders do not die in office, the most common way that they are pushed out of power is by pressure from outside the regime. Since the end of the Cold War, a third of personalist dictators who were in power for 20 years or more were toppled by popular protests or armed rebellions.

Putin’s actions since the invasion raise the possibility of such pressure. Traditionally, autocrats seek to create an apathetic, demobilized citizenry that they can easily control. Until the invasion, Putin presided over Russia this way. Since he began the war, however, he has been forced to announce a “partial mobilization,” calling up 300,000 Russians to fight in Ukraine. He has placed Russia on a wartime footing. As the Russian writer Andrei Kolesnikov has observed, it is no longer possible for Russians to stay disengaged. “More and more, Russians who are economically dependent on the state are finding that they have to be active Putinists,” he noted in these pages. Public acts of support for the regime have become more common, as have incidents in which Russians report on the “antipatriotic” activities of their fellow citizens. But a more mobilized society could ultimately prove difficult for the regime to control.

A bottom-up challenge to Putin’s rule would create the possibility of political change in Russia but is not without risks. Pressure from below brings with it the potential for chaos and violence should it culminate in an armed rebellion, for example. In Russia, efforts by ethnic minorities to push for greater sovereignty, as they did after the fall of the Soviet Union, could further delegitimize Putin and even lead to his ouster. Several factors work against such centrifugal forces. Putin has increased his influence over regional leaders by making them more dependent on Moscow; patriotic pride in the Russian state remains strong in the republics; and the cause of secession is not especially popular anywhere in Russia’s sprawl of republics. Yet the comparative data suggest it should not be dismissed. The political scientist Alexander Taaning Grundholm has shown that although the personalization of an autocracy makes a leader less vulnerable to internal threats such as coups, it does so at the expense of raising the risk of civil war. In the post–Cold War era, 13 percent of longtime personalist leaders were ousted through civil wars.

Already, Russia’s regions have borne the brunt of the costs of Putin’s war in Ukraine. The Kremlin has relied disproportionately on fighters from Russia’s poorest regions composed of large populations of ethnic minorities, including once rebellious republics such as Chechnya and provinces such as Buryatia and Tuva. In Tuva, for instance, one of every 3,300 adults has died fighting in Ukraine. (The comparable figure for Moscow is one of every 480,000 adults.) In other regions such as Khabarovsk, people have been disillusioned with Moscow for some time, as evidenced by antigovernment protests there in 2020 after the Kremlin arrested the region’s popular governor. Another round of mobilization concentrated in the regions, coupled with mounting economic hardship, could feed secessionist sentiment.

A military defeat for Russia could be the catalyst to set the process in motion. A Ukrainian victory would signal further weakness in Russia’s central authority and in the Russian military, increasing the likelihood that secessionist groups see the moment as ripe for taking up arms. The return to Russia’s regions of now veteran fighters with access to weapons but few economic prospects would further facilitate such movements. Political entrepreneurs, such as Prigozhin, may also factor into these dynamics. Prigozhin’s efforts to upset the power balance in the Putin regime could ignite conflict between the Wagner paramilitary company and the Russian armed forces and security services, and flare into outright insurgency.

The Kremlin would, of course, meet any secessionist bids with violence, as it did during Russia’s two wars with Chechnya. It is impossible to predict whether such moves for independence could succeed or whether a leadership change at the top, forced by this growing debacle, could prompt a national reckoning and lead Russians to abjure their country’s imperialist designs on their neighbors.

A clear Ukrainian victory could spur major change in Russia.
What is more certain, however, is that violent upheaval tends to beget more violence. When post–Cold War autocrats have been ousted as a result of civil war, their departures have virtually guaranteed the establishment of new dictatorships or, even worse, outright state failure. Examples include the emergence of the Kabila family’s regime in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) after the overthrow of Mobutu Sese Soko in 1997 and the breakdown of the state in Libya after Muammar al-Qaddafi’s ouster in 2011. Should an armed insurgency unseat Putin, not only would the aftermath be violent, but the odds of a new dictatorship coming to power would also be high.

But there is another, less bloody form of bottom-up pressure that could usher in a more liberal Russia: popular protests. Twenty percent of longtime personalist authoritarian leaders in the post–Cold War era have been ousted by mass protests. Of course, such a movement faces incredible obstacles in today’s Russia: high levels of repression, the Kremlin’s dismantling of the opposition, and the exodus of hundreds of thousands of (often liberal) Russians since the invasion who might have otherwise taken to the streets. And even if dissenters could crowd public squares in large numbers, large-scale protests are by no means guaranteed to topple Putin, given that authoritarian regimes can generally ride out such movements. Consider, for example, the experience of Iran this year, Belarus in 2020 (and in 2010), and Russia itself after controversial elections in 2011 and 2012. In each case, an authoritarian regime suddenly seemed vulnerable in the face of mass protests, only to reassert its control, often violently.

The aftermath of the mass protests that ousted Hosni Mubarak in Egypt in 2011 and Omar al-Bashir in Sudan in 2019 reveal that such movements can also bring new, and potentially worse, authoritarian regimes to power. The military coup that toppled the democratically elected leader Mohamed Morsi in Egypt in 2013 illustrates well that powerful security apparatuses do not simply go away when authoritarian regimes lose power. Should these actors conclude that democracy does not suit their interests, they can simply use force to snuff it out. Even worse, events in Sudan this year make clear that the security apparatus itself is often not unified after the end of personalist rule. Once a strongman is no longer at the helm, his divide-and-conquer strategies can pave the way for conflict to explode among different factions. The security forces in Russia are certainly powerful enough to mount a formidable challenge to any leader who threatens their interest. And their division into distinct groups increases the chance that they might come to blows with one another. Successful mass protests are not, in other words, guaranteed to produce a better Russia.

Nevertheless, popular protests provide the most promising path to a more liberal Russia. Since the end of the Cold War, there have been seven instances in which an authoritarian leader who had been in power for 20 years or more was unseated through protests. In three of those—in Indonesia in 1998, Tunisia in 2011, and Burkina Faso in 2014—the countries staged democratic elections within two years. Those odds may seem low (and young democracies can backslide), but consider that there are no examples of democratization after the departure of similar authoritarians who died in office or were overthrown via a coup or civil war. Other routes to a better, democratic future simply do not exist. Put simply, Russians themselves have the best chance of bringing about a better Russia.

No matter how he leaves office, Putin’s exit will likely occur with little warning. His departure will spur significant debate about how best to approach a post-Putin Russia, not just within policymaking circles in Washington but within the transatlantic alliance more broadly. Some allies will view Putin’s demise as an opportunity to reset relations with Moscow. Others will remain adamant in their view that Russia is incapable of change. The United States must therefore consult allies now about the best approach to a post-Putin Russia to avoid the prospect that his departure becomes divisive. The unity of the alliance will continue to be critical to managing relations with a future Russia.

In any scenario, it will be difficult to discern the intentions of a new Russian leader, even one who comes to power with the backing of the Russian people. Rather than seeking to decipher Kremlin intentions—which a new leader will have an incentive to misrepresent to secure concessions from the West—the United States and European countries should be prepared to clearly articulate their conditions for an improved relationship. Such conditions should include, at a minimum, Russia’s full withdrawal from Ukraine, reparations for wartime damage, and accountability for its human rights violations. As much as the United States and European countries will want to stabilize relations with a post-Putin Russia, Moscow must also be interested in the proposition.

Given the dim prospects for and the uncertain outcome of any future protests, the expectation of U.S. and European officials should be that Russia will remain an autocracy even after Putin departs. Since the end of the Cold War, authoritarianism has persisted beyond the departure of a longtime autocratic leader in 76 percent of cases. When such leaders are also older personalist autocrats, authoritarianism endures (or states fail) 92 percent of the time. Such leaders deeply entrench authoritarian institutions and practices, casting a long shadow over the countries they rule.

Managing relations with Moscow therefore requires a long-term and sustainable strategy to constrain Russia and its ability to wage aggression beyond its borders. Such a strategy should also aim to weaken the grip of authoritarianism in Russia over time. Corruption has been a key enabler of the Putin regime; illicit networks entrench regime interests and prevent individuals outside the regime from gaining influence within the system. To weaken these barriers, Washington must properly enforce sanctions on the Kremlin’s cronies in the business world, combat money laundering, make financial and real estate markets in the United States and Europe more transparent, and support investigative journalists in their bid to uncover such corruption. The United States can also bolster Russian civil society, an important force in forging a more liberal and democratic country, beginning with supporting the work of the many actors in Russian civil society—including journalists and members of the opposition—who have fled the country since the start of the war in February 2022. Backing them now would help lay the groundwork for a better relationship between the United States and a post-Putin Russia.

Ultimately, however, Washington and its allies can do little to directly shape Russia’s political trajectory. A better Russia can be produced only by a clear and stark Ukrainian victory, which is the most viable catalyst for a popular challenge to Putin. Such a resounding defeat is also required to enable Russians to shed their imperialist ambitions and to teach the country’s future elites a valuable lesson about the limits of military power. Support for Ukraine—in the form of sustained military assistance and efforts to anchor the country in the West through membership in the European Union and NATO—will pave the way for improved relations with a new Russia. Getting there will be hard. But the more decisive Russia’s defeat in Ukraine, the more likely it is that Russia will experience profound political change, one hopes for the better.

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