Vladimir Putin is a keen student of Russian history. Last summer, he self-published a long essay, “On the historical unity of Russians and Ukrainians”, that was also a manifesto for war. But amid all his historical musings, Putin missed one crucial recurring pattern: the role that failed wars have played in bringing about regime change in Russia.
Defeat in the First World War created the conditions for the Russian Revolution in 1917. Moscow’s humiliation in the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-05 also helped to provoke a failed revolution. The Crimean War of 1853-56 led to the death, possibly by suicide, of Tsar Nicholas I. More recently, the draining war in Afghanistan contributed substantially to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
The USSR lost about 14,000 troops in a decade of fighting in Afghanistan. The Russian government has admitted to losing almost 500, killed in the first few days of its invasion of Ukraine. The real figures are likely to be considerably higher. Lyudmila Narusova, a Russian senator, has spoken of one Russian company of 100 soldiers with only four survivors. And the worst of the fighting probably lies ahead.
So, could failure in war again topple a Russian government? Most experts I spoke to think it unlikely – at least in the short term. Ben Noble of University College London is “sceptical of claims that Putin will soon be deposed in a palace coup – or that the existing elite could be removed by mass protests”. Dominic Lieven, an authority on the collapse of tsarist Russia, also cautions against counting on a swift unravelling of the Putin system.
On the other hand, thanks to Western sanctions, the economic damage to Russia brought about by the Ukraine war will be swift. The gains of the past 20 years could be wiped out in weeks. Michael Bernstam of Stanford University believes the freeze on the assets of Russia’s central bank will cause commercial banks and supply chains to implode in short order, reducing large parts of the economy to barter.
Russia’s urban middle class has become used to a world of Ikea, iPhones, Visa credit cards and mini-breaks to Europe or the Gulf. That world is over. Many of the oligarchs, who supported Putin to keep their fortunes, have lost their international business empires and yachts.
Hard-won freedoms and connections to the outside world have also disappeared. In many respects, Russia is already more isolated than it was during the Cold War – when it was at least possible to travel in eastern Europe, and Soviet teams competed in the World Cup and the Olympics. Now Russia has been slung out of international sporting competitions and Aeroflot has cancelled international flights, except to neighbouring Belarus. This isolation is likely to persist, as long as the war or occupation of Ukraine continues.
Swift recourse to repression
In Russia itself, access to Facebook and foreign media sites such as the BBC is now blocked. Spreading “false information” about the war (which must not be called a war, but a special military operation) is punishable by 15 years in prison. Russia is now as totalitarian as China – but without the functioning economy, foreign travel and consumer goods that help to keep the Chinese middle class in line.
Putin’s swift recourse to repression shows how uneasy he is about his domestic situation. With the super-rich and the urban middle class restless, Russia’s dictator (for that is what he now is) is left relying on two crucial bases of support: ordinary Russians, outside the big cities, and an inner circle of loyalists.
Russian opinion polls show high levels of support for the war. But given the climate of repression, those polls are unlikely to be reliable. Anecdotal evidence does suggest Putin’s version of the conflict is believed by many, perhaps most, Russians. State television controls the narrative about the war in Ukraine.
But reality – in the form of casualties and economic privation – may soon undermine the official story. Even so, public protests require enormous courage. Demonstrators risk being beaten up, imprisoned and losing their jobs. The crushing of the protest movement in Belarus last year shows that repression often works, if it is ruthless enough.
Hopes for Putin’s removal must rest, then, largely on a palace coup. As the political scientist Milan Svolik has observed, “an overwhelming majority of dictators lose power to those inside the gates of the presidential palace, rather than to the masses outside”. But Putin appears to be surrounded by loyalists, who share his nationalist and conspiratorial worldview and whose fates are closely tied to the leader.
Even if some in the inner circle are harbouring doubts, making a move against Putin would still be extraordinarily risky and difficult. The Russian leader has always looked after his bodyguards – some of whom have become very rich men in their own right.
In other parts of the world, dictators such as Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe or Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela reduced their countries to poverty and isolation – but still managed to cling on to power for many years.
Will that really be possible in modern Russia? Can Putin once again imprison his countrymen behind an iron curtain? The fate of Ukraine, Russia and much of the world will depend on the answer.