Will Putin survive his 'catastrophic' Ukraine war?

Vladimir Putin.
Vladimir Putin. Illustrated | Getty Images
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When Russian President Vladimir Putin launched his three-pronged invasion of neighboring Ukraine in February 2022, his goal was to erase Ukraine as a sovereign nation in a matter of days. At the time, it seemed a plausible goal, in Russia and in the West. Nearly a year later, Ukraine's survival is a much safer bet than Putin's.

Ukraine has systemically and strategically taken back half the territory Russia seized, inflicting humiliating loss after debilitating setback. As Ukraine's battlefield victories pile up, the U.S. and its NATO allies are giving it increasingly sophisticated weapons.

"If 2023 continues as it began, there is a good chance Ukraine will be able to fulfill President Volodymyr Zelensky's New Year's pledge to retake all of Ukraine by the end of the year — or at least enough territory to definitively end Russia's threat," writes Liz Sly at The Washington Post.

Meanwhile, Russia's sanctions-slammed economy struggles to churn out or import new munitions, and its heavy battlefield losses have prompted Putin to institute an unpopular draft.

War is unpredictable, and Ukraine's blood and gifted treasure are not infinite. But if Russia, the erstwhile superpower, does lose its war in Ukraine, will that end Putin's grip on power? Or his lease on life? In other words, will Putin survive his invasion of Ukraine?

There are a number of ways Putin's war can ruin Russia — it is already "turning Russia into a failed state, with uncontrolled borders, private military formations, a fleeing population, moral decay, and the possibility of civil conflict," Arkady Ostrovsky writes at The Economist — but there are really only three ways it can topple Putin himself: He could die, resign, or be involuntarily retired.

Putin's life

Putin fashions himself a physically fit, hockey-playing judo champion who hunts wild game and occasionally rides shirtless on a horse. But as he emerged from extreme COVID-19 isolation, rumors started spreading that he was ill or even dying.

Valery Solovey, a Russian political analyst and Kremlin critic, alleged in 2020 that Putin had cancer and Parkinson's disease and had undergone emergency surgery sometime that year. New Lines magazine reported in May 2022 that "a growing chorus of those close to Putin or in his domestic intelligence apparatus" are murmuring about his poor health, and an unidentified "oligarch close to the Kremlin" had been secretly recorded describing Putin as "very ill with blood cancer."

"The evidence for the preponderance of disparate if not contradictory claims of Putin's imminent demise is Putin himself," Michael Weiss wrote at New Lines. "He certainly looks bad. The bullfrog mien, awkward gait, fidgety behavior at televised events." Putin "really does not feel very well," especially after Russia's military defeats, Solovey told Ukraine's UNIAN news agency in November 2022. "He has problems, stomach pains, and so on. Most likely, he has difficulty controlling himself."

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

"There are two ways of explaining why there are so many rumors circulating around Putin's health," The Economist's Arkady Ostrovsky said in June 2022. "One, of course, is political, if you like: So many people around Putin now who realize he has made this extraordinary blunder that has driven Russia into this catastrophic war. There are a lot of people who see and wish for the best way out, which is Putin dying in office."

"The other, of course, is the possibility that he is very, very seriously ill," though "we can't verify this," Arkady added. "The fact that they are circulating, however, is politically significant. It is evidence of how brittle this regime is and how quickly it could unravel, how much is held together by Putin, and how many people want him dead."

The Kremlin has disputed the health rumors. "In recent months, Ukrainian, American, and British so-called information 'specialists' have thrown around various fakes about the health of the president," Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters in July. "But it is nothing but fakes." CIA Director William Burns also threw cold water on the rumors, telling the Aspen Security Forum in July that "there are lots of rumors about President Putin's health and as far as we can tell he's entirely too healthy."

Putin's power

Almost as soon as Putin launched his Ukraine invasion in February 2022, and certainly since it started going poorly, "there has been ongoing deliberation about how long Putin will remain in power, his hypothetical demise an outcome of failing health or domestic political ouster," 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 guarantor of their stability," and they personally fear the rise of Wagner Group mercenary founder Yevgeny Prigozhin. Rather than risk being violently toppled like Libya's Moammar Gadhafi or losing the next election, Putin will anoint a "trusted underling" as the next president, and "get the opportunity to end his days calmly" at his billion-dollar palace on the Back Sea, Gallyamov said.

"I think there are chances Putin could be forced from office," former Russian diplomat Boris Bondarev, who quit Russia's United Nations mission in May over the war, told Britain's Daily Mail in December 2022. "But first he must be regarded by his own people as a loser, as someone who lied and made them fools," and "that will happen only if he is truly and widely defeated in Ukraine." If that happens, Bondarev said, Putin's elite "may force him to go to sleep and never wake up."

So far, Russian nationalists and pro-war military bloggers have kept their strident criticisms of the Ukraine war to the Russian defense ministry and military generals, not Putin. But one prominent military blogger, former Russian militia commander Igor Girkin, "heavily implied" in January that he would support Putin's removal from office, even if such a statement had "suicidal" consequences, the Institute for the Study of War think tank reported.

Putin himself "understands that this has been a mess," but "I don't think he's accepted that he is defeated, because the essence of being Putin is never accepting that you've been defeated," military scholar Fred Kagan tells CBS News. "The art here is helping Putin understand that he's lost this round, and it's time to fold this hand," and that's up to Ukraine's military and NATO weapons.

"If Putin departs office (voluntarily or not) with the war in Ukraine ongoing, his successor may elect to quit fighting, but the decision will not be easy or risk free, and this holds regardless of who replaces Putin," Cochran writes at War on the Rocks.

Putin's prospects

So, can Putin survive? "By some measures, 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 war is politically costly." But "highly personalistic" dictators like Putin "are far less vulnerable to losing office after a defeat in war" than democratically elected leaders, and "so long as Putin continues to provide sizable personal benefits to his close allies, they are likely to hang together, for fear of hanging separately."

Still, "Russia has a history of regime change in the aftermath of unsuccessful wars," from the Bolshevik Revolution after the Russo-Japanese War and World War I to the collapse of the Soviet Union following its defeat in Afghanistan, Liana Fix and Michael Kimmage write in Foreign Affairs. "Revolutions have occurred in Russia when the government has failed in its economic and political objectives and has been unresponsive to crises" as its legitimacy is punctured.

"Putin is at risk in all these categories," Fix and Kimmage add. "Putin's war in Ukraine was meant to be his crowning achievement, a demonstration of how far Russia had come since the collapse of the Soviet empire in 1991," but he has managed the war poorly, and now the country's economy is in trouble. "In the face of these dismal trends, Putin has doubled down on his errors, all the while insisting that the war is going 'according to plan.'"

Russia's economic and battlefield losses have some speculating that Putin's hold on power is weakening, but he's "more secure than most people believe," Maria Snegovaya wrote at the Journal of Democracy in April 2022. "Previous Russian military defeats have brought about social and political change," but not all of them. In the face of defeat, as with Josef Stalin's failure to conquer Finland in 1939-40, Russia's subdued elites may be "unlikely to pose a serious challenge to Putin."

And a "debilitated Putin" is not one of Russia's greatest weaknesses, Askold Lozynskyj argues at the Kyiv Post. Those are "that it is a prison of some 100 captive nations, that its economy is not productive, and that due to its lack of financial wherewithal its military might is grossly exaggerated." Putin is "evil," but he's "not delusional," Lozynskyj adds. "He is aware of internal turmoil within an empire which he maintains by force and repression."

If it becomes clear Ukraine will not be defeated, the "most likely" scenario is that Putin leaves office, and a "vicious power struggle" ensues between various factions — pro-war right-wing nationalists seeking a reckoning, authoritarian conservatives committed to the status quo, and "semi-democratic" reformers, Alexander J. Motyl counters at Foreign Policy. "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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